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Three Terrorism Suspects Jailed in Weekend Raid

September 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Judy Woodruff speaks with journalists about the arrests of three terrorism suspects over the weekend related to an alleged plot to bomb American targets.
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JIM LEHRER: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: a health insurance mandate; and novelist Margaret Atwood. That follows the latest on the arrest of three terror suspects.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The three defendants made their first appearances in federal court today in Denver and New York City. The arrests on Saturday were the result of a year-long investigation of 24-year-old Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan national and airport bus driver who has reportedly admitted to getting explosives training from al-Qaida.

Police raided his Denver-area home last week. He allegedly traveled to Pakistan twice this year and had notes and guides for bomb-making on his computer.

RAYMOND KELLY, police commissioner, New York City: So when he was questioned about whether or not he knew anything about these written notes, and they were showed to him, he denied that knowledge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zazi was charged with lying to officials in an ongoing terror investigation. He has insisted he’s done nothing wrong.

Zazi’s 53-year-old father, Mohammed Zazi, was also arrested in Denver.

RAYMOND KELLY: He’s arrested because he lied about the phone call that he made to his son when he was in New York.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The third arrest came 1,800 miles away in New York City, where Zazi used to live. 37-year-old Ahmad Afzali is a prominent leader of this New York City mosque. He also worked as an informant for New York City police and stands accused of tipping Zazi off about the investigation and then lying about it to the FBI.

Today, his defense attorney, Ron Kuby, said his client was not guilty of leaking information.

RON KUBY, attorney: The suspect in the terror investigation knew that he was under surveillance, and he said that in the tape-recorded conversation with the imam. It was the FBI itself, through its own conduct, that tipped off Najibullah Zazi that he was under investigation. They blew their own investigation, and now they’re trying to blame my client.

The suspects under surveillance

David Johnston
The New York Times
We're still waiting to find out what exactly it was that triggered the first surveillance of Mr. Zazi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some news outlets have reported the investigation was focusing on a possible plan to attack a public area in New York City, including a subway station or Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan.

In fact, today, federal officials sent out a reminder to law enforcement agencies to carry out random sweeps and patrols of rail and bus systems to guard against homemade bombs.

For more, we turn to two reporters who've been covering this story: Bruce Finley of the Denver Post and David Johnston of the New York Times.

Thank you both. David Johnston, to you first. The authorities have been looking at the younger Mr. Zazi, the 24 year old, for, what, months now, almost a year. What first drew their attention to him?

DAVID JOHNSTON, New York Times: Well, we're still waiting to find out what exactly it was that triggered the first surveillance of Mr. Zazi. But it's pretty clear that, as soon as he returned from one of his latest trips to Pakistan, that he was under surveillance, at least beginning in January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, on September the 9th, we know that he rented a car in Denver and drove to New York. And that's when the authorities started watching him even more closely.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, it was at that point that this case went from being a covert to overt, and the precise circumstances of how that happened or whether the authorities intended that to happen is still unclear. It certainly is beginning to look as if this case was inadvertently exposed to its subjects at about September the 10th or September 11th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about that. In fact, Bruce Finley in Denver, you learned about this before the authorities wanted it out through a friend and a police radio. Tell us about that.

BRUCE FINLEY, Denver Post: That morning, one of our reporters heard the name Najibullah on the police scanner, and he also heard about the raids in New York. And so we set about trying to see what was happening.

It was really quite a good team effort for our newspaper. We were able to use some electronic databases and then some open records to find some addresses for Zazi. We also visited several of the mosques in the city trying to see what was maybe going on.

Late that afternoon, Tuesday, I spoke with some of the relatives of Mr. Zazi, an aunt and an uncle. And then I began to piece together a little bit of his life story, growing up Paktia, a province in Afghanistan, and moving as a boy to Peshawar. And then around age 14, the family moves to Queens, Flushing, where he went to high school.

And then in January, according to the aunt and uncle, and then later Zazi himself, he moved to Colorado for what was to be a better life, lower cost. He loved soccer, but he spent most of his days driving the ABC Transportation shuttle that he owned to and from the airport, about 16 hours a day.

Training in Pakistan

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post
The source of that admission is the charging documents released early Sunday where it said that he admitted during two of the three days of questioning by the FBI in Denver that he, while in Pakistan, attended an al-Qaida training facility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Bruce Finley, what did the family say about these months that we've learned he spent in Pakistan? And he apparently has told authorities that he did participate in an al-Qaida training program.

BRUCE FINLEY: His aunt said that he had gone to visit his wife who lives Peshawar. He'd been hoping to bring his wife here, according to his uncle. And then, in an interview with Najibullah Zazi, he confirmed this story.

The source of that admission is the charging documents released early Sunday where it said that he admitted during two of the three days of questioning by the FBI in Denver that he, while in Pakistan, attended an al-Qaida training facility and received instruction from al-Qaida members and weapons and explosives. And that's the evidence we have, is what's been released in that federal charging document.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Johnston, how solid -- you've been talking to authorities in New York -- what do they tell you and others is the best information or the best evidence they have that something was about to take place here?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, what they really have is they have Mr. Zazi's travels, his training, and the sense that he was able to move around the United States fairly freely. And I think that's pretty much all that they have.

And I think, frankly, they are not clear on what the target is. In fact, they do not know what the target is. They don't know what the timing was going to be. And they don't have a sense of what the intentions of these men were.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain, then, this warning that was issued today -- or do you know how much of a connection there was of this warning that was issued today to law enforcement around the country about potential attacks on mass transit bus and train?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, I think what authorities are saying is that this was a good moment to remind people of the concern about and the vulnerabilities of these areas. And there hasn't been a specific linkage made between the arrests and those warnings that went out from homeland security today.

Investigation goes public

David Johnston
The New York Times
The information that was communicated to Mr. Afzali and then his conversation with Mr. Zazi were the precipitating events that forced the hand of the authorities to take this investigation public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Johnston, when you say that there is a sense that they moved more quickly than they wanted to, what do you think precipitated that?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, there's no doubt, I think, that the information that was communicated to Mr. Afzali and then his conversation with Mr. Zazi were the precipitating events that forced the hand of the authorities to take this investigation public, so to speak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And by Mr. Afzali, that's the -- this is the...

DAVID JOHNSTON: That's the imam in New York.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In New York.

Bruce Finley, what are the authorities there telling you about where this goes from here?

BRUCE FINLEY: Well, we don't have any confirmation that the surveillance may be targeting more individuals. There's a hint of that. We interviewed an operator of a storage facility who said that an agent came showing four photos, two of men, two of women on Monday. And so there's nothing more than that hint, though, that there would be more people under surveillance here.

Yes, certainly, if there's any municipal, you know, police operation in the country that would want to keep an operation covert rather than go overt, you'd think it would be the one in New York. And the whole case is certainly interesting to be playing out now when some in Congress are discussing the surveillance powers and reviewing some of those measures put in place after 9/11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Johnston, at your end, what are you hearing about where it goes from here?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, the FBI is expressing confidence that in the end that they will have greater clarity than we now have on what it is that was really going to be unfolding here.

And I think it's fairly clear that this investigation will continue, that there will be other people who will come under scrutiny, that they will look both in the United States and they'll be investigating overseas, in Pakistan, to try to get a fix on this, and that the charges in court are going to move from these, in a sense, placeholder false statements charges to more than likely more serious criminal charges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, David Johnston with the New York Times, Bruce Finley with the Denver Post, thank you both.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Thank you.