The plot, which authorities called one of most dangerous terrorist conspiracies since the 9/11 attacks, was abandoned by Zazi and two others after they became fearful they were under scrutiny.
Written by Colin Moynihan
He was a high-school dropout from Queens who worked in a coffee cart in downtown Manhattan in 2006 when a friend handed him an audiotape of a radical Muslim cleric.
That was the start of a personal odyssey that sent the young man, Najibullah Zazi, to fight in Afghanistan, where a senior al-Qaida official trained him to build bombs and sent him back to the United States, where he and two friends planned a suicide attack in the New York City subway system.
Zazi was arrested in 2009, and Thursday his case came to an end when a federal judge, citing his cooperation with US authorities and his testimony at two trials, gave Zazi a 10-year sentence that his lawyers said could result in his release from prison within days.
The plot, which authorities called one of most dangerous terrorist conspiracies since the Sept. 11 attacks, was abandoned by Zazi and two of his former classmates from Flushing High School after they became fearful they were under scrutiny.
Zazi switched sides after his arrest, providing what the government called “extraordinary cooperation” that included insight into terrorist groups and information about his friends and family members.
That cooperation earned Zazi his freedom. “This one unthinkable second chance has come your way,” Judge Raymond J. Dearie told Zazi. “And you have earned it.”
It was an unusual end to a terrorism case that began with a conspiracy as grave as the one Zazi joined.
A prosecutor, Douglas M. Pravda, told Dearie on Thursday that Zazi’s crimes were “as serious as it gets” but added that he had “repudiated terrorist ideology” and provided intelligence that “has been incredibly valuable to the U.S. government and our foreign partners.”
Wearing dark blue jail garb, Zazi gave a brief statement in a clear voice. He said that he had obtained a high school equivalency diploma while in custody and was no longer the same person he was when he was arrested.
“I tried my best to correct my horrific mistake by cooperating,” he said. “I have a deeper knowledge of myself and understanding of the true meaning of Islam.”
Court documents related to Zazi’s case tell the tale of a young man who converted to the violent jihadi cause, then underwent a different conversion, offering the US authorities critical intelligence about al-Qaida and information that led to charges against several other people.
Doing so made him a target for al-Qaida assassins, prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum. There was a personal toll as well. As part of his cooperation agreement, Zazi agreed to testify against his two best friends, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, about their roles in the plot.
The three of them had sworn an oath to each other in 2008 that they would fight alongside the Taliban mujahedeen, kill US soldiers and defeat the United States or die trying, the memorandum said. Zazi wept on the witness stand as he testified at Medunjanin’s trial in April 2012.
Zazi also gave the authorities information about his cousin Amanullah Zazi and his father, Walid Wali Zazi, who were both convicted of crimes related to the plot to bomb the subway system.
Najibullah Zazi was born in eastern Pakistan in 1985 and moved to Queens in 1999 at the age of 14. He went to Flushing High School but dropped out during his senior year; he worked in a grocery story and a fast-food restaurant before becoming a coffee vendor, court papers said.
In his early 20s, he began listening to hundreds of hours of lectures by Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American imam who became a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican preacher who was convicted in Britain on charges that included soliciting murder.
By 2008, Zazi was watching videos of mortar and suicide attacks by al-Qaida and the Taliban. He came to believe that the United States was an occupying army in Afghanistan and had faked the Sept. 11 attacks as a pretext for invasion, the memorandum said.
He signed his coffee cart over to another vendor and, with his former high school classmates, Ahmedzay and Medunjanin, flew from Newark, New Jersey, to Peshawar in August 2008.
There, the three men from Queens learned how to use AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at an al-Qaida training camp. Later, a senior leader in the terrorist group, Saleh al-Somali, persuaded Aziz and his friends to return to the United States to carry out a suicide attack.
At a second camp, Aziz received training in building bombs from common ingredients like nail polish remover, hydrogen peroxide, hydrochloric acid, clarified butter and flour, the memorandum said.
In 2009, while living in Colorado, Zazi began buying chemicals that he needed to make detonators. That summer, during a meeting in Bear Mountain State Park in upstate New York, Zazi and the other two settled on the plan to wear suicide vests into the subway and discussed targeting trains leaving Grand Central Terminal at rush hour.
They decided to carry out the attack on a day around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, but then called it off after they heard that law enforcement officers had been asking a religious leader in Queens about Zazi.
Zazi, who had driven to New York, flew back to Colorado on Sept. 12 and was arrested a week later.
He initially lied to the FBI agents who interviewed him, but once he agreed to cooperate in February, prosecutors said, the level of information he provided was exceptional.
He testified against Medunjanin and Abid Naseer, who was charged with being part of a cell that planned to bomb a shopping center in Manchester, England.
His information was also used in connection with the prosecution of Ahmedzay and of his own father, who was convicted of lying to federal agents and destroying evidence. He also helped prosecutors convict Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, who was charged with conspiring to attack US soldiers in Afghanistan.
In a letter to the judge, Zazi said he had been taken in by Anwar al-Awlaki’s “twisted and corrupted teaching of the Quran” and had accepted the idea that America wanted to destroy Islam. He blamed his poor education.
“Looking back, I can now see how gullible I was, actually living in an imaginary world,” he wrote. “Your honor, the uneducated are perfect targets for the unscrupulous.”
Substantial sections of a letter the US attorney’s office submitted to the court that outlined Zazi’s cooperation were redacted, with prosecutors saying “the extensive information Zazi provided continues to directly contribute to ongoing law enforcement investigations related to national security matters” and must be kept confidential.
Before handing down the sentence, Dearie lamented that impressionable people had been “hijacked and corrupted by the rhetoric of hate.” But he added that prosecutors had assured him they had no reservations these days about Zazi’s changed state of mind.
“Is this the same Mr. Zazi I saw so many years ago?” he asked. “All indications are that it is not.”
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