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Terror Suspect Zazi Pleads Not Guilty in N.Y.

September 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant arrested Sept. 20 in connection to a plot to bomb targets in New York City, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to terrorism conspiracy charges. Dina Temple-Raston of NPR details the case against Zazi.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, a terror suspect goes to court in New York City. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Twenty-four-year-old Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi entered a plea of not guilty this morning at the federal court in Brooklyn. Prosecutors have accused him of plotting an attack on New York City using bombs made from beauty supply chemicals.

Zazi’s lawyer denounced what he said was the government’s rush to judgment against his client.

For more, we’re joined by Dina Temple-Raston, counterterrorism correspondent for National Public Radio.

And after he entered the plea, did Zazi’s lawyer have much to say about the defense?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Not terribly much, but this is the first sort of show of a little bit of leg on what the defense strategy might be. What he said was, from the evidence that he’d seen– and he said he hasn’t seen it all — that essentially it didn’t look like there was enough there to charge Zazi with conspiracy to — and the actual charge is conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against targets in the U.S., and he said he didn’t see enough for a conspiracy.

He said what he saw was that Zazi had actually traveled to Pakistan, which is completely legal, and what he saw is Zazi had bought a lot of chemicals in bulk — hydrogen peroxide and acetone among them — which, of course, is also legal.

So we’re starting to see a little bit of what might happen in terms of a defense for Zazi.

RAY SUAREZ: With Zazi’s first day in court, did federal prosecutors or investigators reveal anything more about the case they’ve built against the man?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Not really. We saw an awful lot in the charging documents that they released last week. And in those documents, allegedly, he admitted to attending an al-Qaida camp and getting explosives training.

Allegedly, they found some notes that were imaged on his computer that were in his own handwriting that showed how to make a bomb, essentially a bomb recipe, very similar to the bomb recipe TATP that was used in the London bombings, those transportation bombings that they had.

So those are the sorts of things that they’re starting to put together. But, again, you know, there are other people who might be involved with this. They hinted at this in the charging indictments. They said that there were other people who allegedly came and helped him buy a lot of these chemicals that he was buying.

So we’re kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. And they don’t want to show too many of their cards at this point to see how big this plot or alleged plot really is.

Missing pieces

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned the hints coming from federal authorities. Do we know whether there are a lot of people who may be alleged to be part of this conspiracy, whether the arrests are imminent?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we think the arrests are imminent, but what's really interesting is senior intelligence officials that I've been talking to who've been following this case say what's scary about this case is they don't know what they don't know.

At one point late last week, there were as many as two dozen people who were under some sort of surveillance because they were linked to Zazi. That's in Denver and in New York. Now I think the number has been whittled down to about a dozen people, but that's still a lot of people.

And, remember, he bought all these chemicals. They have a video surveillance tape of him actually buying them, but nobody knows where they are. So there's a concern that there may be some explosives out there or at least components to explosives and people they don't know about who might, you know, end up launching some sort of attack.

And that's why they're being so careful. And I think that's why they're being so circumspect with the information that they're putting out at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: Dina, how is what the government is saying happened in the Zazi case different from what they've alleged in cases they've brought to trial earlier in this decade, from men involved in a plot in Miami, another one in Springfield, Illinois, another one in Texas?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, actually, this is very different. And this was clear just even in the beginning before they charged him with these terrorism charges. Just the tone of voice that I heard from my sources in law enforcement was completely different. There was actually some concern and worry in their voices.

And that's because Zazi is different because he actually was capable, they think, of actually launching a plot. And in general, terrorism plots here in the United States tend to be more aspirational than operational. And by that I mean there are people, for example, in the Miami case that you were talking about who said, "I want to blow up the Sears Tower." And they say this, but they have no means or no knowledge of being able to do something like that.

In Zazi's case, he appeared to have training at an al-Qaida camp in explosives. He appeared to know what he needed to do in order to put together some sort of explosive device. And even more so, it appears that there were people who were willing to follow him.

These are the sorts of things that we've seen in Europe. This is not something that we've seen here before. In fact, that's why law enforcement officials have been telling me this is the most serious terrorism threat that's been against the United States since the 9/11 attacks.

Training in Pakistan

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I'm interested that you use the phrase "appeared to have been" in Pakistan and in an al-Qaida training camp. Have federal investigators laid out something like a chronology, placing Zazi at different specific places at different specific times?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: There is a great deal of a chronology, but some of it is in the charging papers and some of it is stuff that NPR has learned because of the sources that we have.

Now, our understanding was that last week he had actually been talking to authorities to put together some sort of not exactly plea agreement, but an agreement in which he would give them more information and maybe that would mean less charges. And those talks, those negotiations -- cooperation negotiations is what they're called -- actually fell apart last week. And then sort of a day later, he was arrested for lying to authorities, which was sort of a placeholder charge while they tried to gather other information and other evidence against him.

So apparently, during those discussions, either before them or after, he allegedly said that he had attended an al-Qaida camp and that he had explosives training, but he said very quickly after that that he wasn't part of any sort of conspiracy and he wasn't planning anything or planning to use those skills.

And clearly, that's not something that prosecutors and the FBI believe, because a short time later, they actually arrested him for lying to them about his activities.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joining us from New York, good to talk to you.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Nice to talk to you, too. Thanks for having me.