NEW YORK – The admitted bomb-maker in a foiled plot against the city's subways appeared in public Tuesday for the first time in more than two years, describing how an FBI most-wanted terrorist recruited him and two friends for an al-Qaida suicide mission in the U.S. after they abandoned plans to wage jihad against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
During their 2008 trip to Pakistan, Najibullah Zazi testified in federal court, the three Americans met a top al-Qaida operative they knew only as Hamad. Authorities say Hamad was Adnan Shukrijumah, a Saudi fugitive suspected of plotting terror attacks around the world.
Hamad told the the three former high school classmates from Queens they were best suited for an operation on U.S. soil — an idea Zazi said they intitially resisted because they were still determined to fight as martyrs with the Taliban.
"We thought it was a joke," he said, testifying at the trial of Adis Medunjanin, his alleged accomplice in a terror plot authorities say was the most serious since 9/11.
Medunjanin, 27, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges. He has denied he was ever part of an al-Qaida operation.
Authorities have portrayed Zazi as a high school dropout turned homegrown terrorist who orchestrated the 2009 scheme to strap on suicide bomb vests and detonate them on Manhattan subways. The former Colorado air shuttle driver cooked up beauty supplies to make some of the explosives in a hotel room and was arrested in Colorado after driving to New York and back just before the eighth anniversary of 9/11.
Both he and Zarein Ahmedzay pleaded guilty in 2010 and were jailed without bail after agreeing to become government witnesses in a bid for leniency.
His hair in a crew cut and his beard trimmed short from the time of his last court appearance, the 26-year-old Zazi testified that the three men made an oath about five years ago to leave their Queens neighborhood and "fight alongside the Taliban." He said the men were inflamed by recordings of U.S.-born extremist Anwar al-Awlaki and other radical clerics.
Medunjanin believed, "Muslims should fight Americans — that it is their duty," said Zazi, an Afghan who spent his childhood in Pakistan before moving to New York City with his family in 1999. Zazi added that he was motivated in part by a belief that "America itself" was responsible for the 2001 terror attacks that sent hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
On Monday, Ahmedzay testified how al-Qaida operatives recruited them in Pakistan and drove them 10 hours away to a compound protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades and other weapons, and ordered them to carry out an attack in New York City before end of George W. Bush's second term as president, he said.
He also recalled returning to New York City and using his cab to drive around the city in early 2009 and casing potential targets for a terrorist attack, including Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, the New York Stock Exchange and a Walmart store. The conspirators also considered striking Penn Station or city movie theaters before settling on attacking the subways during Ramadan, he said.
Zazi's three hours of testimony ended Tuesday before he could describe how he relocated to the Denver area, where set out for New York around the time of the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Once he suspected he was under surveillance after a traffic stop on the George Washington Bridge, he aborted the mission and returned to Colorado, where he was arrested. He was to return to the witness stand on Wendesday.
After 9/11, Shukrijumah was seen as one of al-Qaida's best chances to attack inside the U.S. or Europe, captured terrorist Abu Zubaydah told U.S. authorities. Shukrijumah studied at a community college in Florida but when the FBI showed up to arrest him as a material witness to a terrorism case in 2003, he already had left the country.
In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called Shukrijumah a "clear and present danger" to the United States. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.