NEW YORK – A man accused of becoming an Al Qaeda operative discussed bombing New York City movie theaters, Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange before settling on the city's subways, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
Adis Madunjanin considered the high-profile targets with two of his former high school classmates from Queens, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Looman said in opening statements.
The men "were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them -- men, women and children," Looman said.
Defense attorney Robert Gottlieb accused the government of using "inflammatory rhetoric" about Al Qaeda and terrorism to prevent jurors "from seeing the truth about this case."
"The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist," he said.
There's no dispute that Medunjanin and his two former classmates packed up and traveled together to Pakistan in 2008. But federal prosecutors say the three were homegrown Muslim extremists who, under Al Qaeda's tutelage, came back to the United States and hatched a foiled plot to attack the New York City subways as suicide bombers.
Medunjanin, 27, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges in what U.S. officials have described as one of the most chilling terror conspiracies since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Childhood friends Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay have admitted in guilty pleas that they wanted to avenge U.S. aggression in the Arab world by becoming martyrs.
In his first public account, Ahmedzay testified Monday that Medunjanin encouraged him to follow a more radical form of Islam.
"I became very radical in my views," he said.
While sitting in a car outside a Queens mosque, the three men "made a covenant to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahideen against American forces."
Another possible witness is Bryant Neal Vinas, a Long Island man who joined Al Qaeda around the same time as the other men. Officials have credited Vinas with providing key intelligence about the terror group since his capture in 2008.
Jurors also are expected to hear evidence that following his arrest, Medunjanin told the FBI he had become a more devout Muslim about four years before the plot was exposed after he and Zazi began spending time together at a local mosque, FBI reports say. He also recalled being influenced by tapes of U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, they say.
In 2008, Medunjanin and his friends decided to join the Taliban and fight U.S. soldiers in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the FBI reports say. The three instead were recruited by Al Qaeda operatives, who gave them weapons training in their Pakistan camp and asked them to become suicide bombers, they say.
Medunjanin told his Al Qaeda handlers "he had prayed but still wasn't sure if he was ready to be a martyr," the reports say. He later was sent home on his own, the reports add, after he told them "the best thing for him to do ... was to return to the U.S. and provide financial support" for the terror network.
Zazi, after relocating to the Denver area, got as far as cooking up explosives and setting out by car for New York City in September 2009 to carry out the attack. He was arrested after abandoning the plan and fleeing back to Colorado.
The FBI reports say Medunjanin denied knowing what Zazi was up to. And the defense has claimed he spoke to the FBI under duress.
In a sworn statement, the defendant accused agents of making veiled threats against his family and denying him access to his attorney for 36 hours. Federal authorities insist his statements were voluntary.
Meanwhile, Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said Monday that it had struck a rare deal with a convicted terrorist to provide evidence for Medunjanin's trial. Saajid Badat, who was jailed in Britain in 2005 for his role in a 2001 plot to down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden inside shoes, had his jail term cut from 13 years to 11 years under the agreement. Badat was an accomplice of so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence in the United States.
Prosecutors could not confirm whether Badat will appear in person to testify, provide written evidence or appear from his British jail via a video link.
Prosecutors in Britain said details of the deal were not disclosed at the time it was struck; a judge ordered the information to remain confidential until the U.S. case began.
It meant that Badat was released on parole -- having served part of his reduced 11 year sentence -- in 2010, before the detail of his arrangement with prosecutors was made public Monday.