NEW YORK – Distressed over the deaths of civilians in his native Afghanistan, a man who once operated a coffee cart near the World Trade Center site hatched a plan to join the Taliban and fight the U.S. military.
Najibullah Zazi traveled to Pakistan in August 2008 but never made it to Afghanistan. Al Qaeda operatives spotted him. They had more ambitious plans and conspired with him to try to help him die a martyr in a bombing of the New York subway system, he admitted Monday.
"I had discussions with Al Qaeda leaders, including target locations, such as New York City subways," he said.
Zazi, a former Colorado airport shuttle driver, pleaded guilty Monday in Brooklyn federal court to conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support for a terrorist organization. The 25-year-old, part of what prosecutors consider one of the most serious U.S. terror threats since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, faces life in prison without parole when he's sentenced in June.
The jailed Zazi had recently volunteered information about the bomb plot in the first step toward a plea deal, The Associated Press learned earlier this month from officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the terror investigation was ongoing. His cooperation suggests prosecutors hope to expand the case and bring charges against other suspects.
Already charged are an imam, a cab driver and Zazi's uncle and father, who's been accused of trying to dispose of chemicals.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington that the planned bombings "could have been devastating."
"This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion and it would have been deadly," he said.
Zazi admitted using notes taken at an al-Qaida training camp in Waziristan, Pakistan, to build homemade explosives with beauty supplies purchased in the Denver suburbs and cooked up in a Colorado hotel room. He then drove the materials to New York just before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
His plan was to assemble the bombs over the weekend and detonate them within days.
Asked by federal Judge Raymond J. Dearie on Monday if he had been willing to be a suicide bomber, Zazi said, "Yes, your honor."
While entering the city, Zazi was stopped by police for a routine traffic violation on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York. Suspicious officers allowed him to go free but kept a close watch on his movements.
"The plan was to conduct martyrdom operation on the subway lines in Manhattan as soon as the material was ready," Zazi said.
Sometime after the traffic stop, Zazi realized authorities were investigating him.
"At that point, we threw away the detonator explosives and other materials," he said.
Authorities raided several Queens apartments, including a friend's home where Zazi had stayed. Zazi was arrested.
One of the people familiar with the investigation said that Zazi told prosecutors that he made roughly 2 pounds of a powerful and highly unstable explosive called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP. The same explosive was used by would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2001 and by the terrorists who carried out the London bombings that killed 52 people in 2005.
Zazi decided to cooperate after being warned that his mother could face criminal immigration charges, one of the people familiar with his case told the AP.
Zazi's father was accused this month of trying to get rid of chemicals and other evidence. Prosecutors, after initially demanding that he be jailed in Brooklyn without bail, agreed to a deal on Feb. 17 releasing him on $50,000 bond and allowing him to return to his home in suburban Denver.
By contrast, bond for a Queens imam charged with lying to the FBI about phone contact with Zazi when Zazi was in New York was set at $1.5 million. A friend of Zazi's, a New York cab driver, was jailed without bail on a similar lying charge.
Authorities say the cabbie and another former high school classmate of Zazi's, Adis Medunjanin, traveled to Pakistan with Zazi. Medunjanin has pleaded not guilty to charges he conspired to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and remains jailed.
Officials earlier confirmed Zazi's uncle had been arraigned on a felony count in secret, a sign he could be cooperating.
Holder used the case to rebut Republican critics who've said the Democratic administration should try such terrorism suspects before military tribunals rather than through civilian courts.
"To take this tool out of our hands, to denigrate this tool," Holder said, "flies in the face of facts and is more about politics than it is about facts."