A foiled terrorist plot is usually cause for celebration. But the Sept. 19 arrest of two Afghan-born men in connection with plans to bomb targets in the U.S. has left FBI agents frustrated. They had not intended to swoop on their prey quite so soon. Had an informant not tipped off alleged plotters Najibullah Zazi and his father Mohammed, they might still be free men--and useful assets in the hunt for terrorist networks.
Instead, in announcing the arrests, officials had to concede that they had "no specific information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack." What the FBI had were bits and pieces of evidence--handwritten notes on bomb-making techniques, materials that could be used for explosives--that, taken together, hint at the "backpack bombs" used by terrorists in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.
It was evidence enough for authorities to warn police to be extra-vigilant around stadiums and hotels, subways and other mass-transport systems. But it was not enough to charge the Zazis with anything related to terrorism; they are being held on the lesser charge of lying to the authorities. The FBI is now racing to build a stronger case, and officials say several other men connected to the Zazis are being scrutinized.
According to court documents, Najibullah Zazi, 24, who had been under FBI surveillance since a recent trip to Pakistan, rented a car and drove to New York the day before Sept. 11. The FBI alerted the NYPD to its investigation, and police officers showed his picture to Ahmad Wais Afzali, an Afghan-born imam of a Queens mosque and an occasional police informant. According to the FBI, Afzali then tipped off both the Zazis about the investigation. FBI agents, who had been monitoring the phones, knew their cover was blown and raided homes in Queens that Zazi had visited, seizing backpacks and cell phones.
Najibullah, meanwhile, flew back to Denver, where he agreed to be questioned by the FBI but stopped cooperating after three days of interviews. He and his father were then arrested; both men deny plotting a terrorist strike. Afzali, who was taken into custody in New York, denies alerting the Zazis to the investigation.
The court documents say Najibullah's laptop computer yielded images of nine pages of notes--in what seems to be his handwriting--on how to make bombs. The FBI also found his fingerprints on a small electronic scale and batteries, which can be used in making explosives. Zazi told his interviewers he had downloaded the notes by mistake and had deleted them. But he admitted to training at an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan in 2008--and that may be enough for the FBI to charge him with supporting a terrorist group.