By Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
A 24-year-old Afghan man at the center of an unfolding FBI investigation into a possible U.S. terrorism cell was ordered held without bond Monday as authorities raced to learn more about an alleged plot using hydrogen peroxide explosives and who else might have been helping to carry it out.
A federal judge in Denver followed the recommendation of Justice Department prosecutors and refused to release Najibullah Zazi, a permanent U.S. resident, who allegedly told federal agents that he had received weapons and explosives training in a conflict-laden region of Pakistan with ties to al-Qaeda. Zazi was pulled over earlier this month while driving on the George Washington Bridge in New York, where FBI agents say they uncovered a handwritten recipe for making and handling explosives in a file stored on his laptop computer.
Law enforcement officials described the investigation as fluid, with critical questions unanswered. Among them: Who else may have known about the alleged plot, the identities of others who may have been involved, and if there was a plot, how close Zazi and his alleged confederates had come to carrying out an attack. Two legal sources labeled as false a news report that seven other men in the New York area had been arrested in connection with the probe. But investigators continue to conduct interviews in New York and Colorado.
To date, three men -- Zazi and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, both of whom live in suburban Denver, and Queens imam Ahmad Wais Afzali -- have been charged with criminal offenses. But the charge, lying to investigators in a terrorism probe, is a placeholders likely to be supplemented in the days or weeks ahead, the law enforcement sources said on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry continues.
Last week in searches executed in Queens and Denver, federal agents found a black scale and AA batteries that bore Zazi's fingerprints, according to court papers. They also found cellphones and more than a dozen backpacks and interviewed the operator of a New York area U-Haul shop, who said he turned away men who tried to rent a truck there.
Denver Magistrate Judge Craig B. Shaffer ordered Najibullah Zazi to appear in court again Thursday for a formal detention hearing. The judge released Mohammed Zazi on a $50,000 unsecured bond. He will be confined to his home and subjected to electronic monitoring.
A representative for Arthur Folsom, Najibullah Zazi's attorney, did not return phone calls.
FBI agents said Afzali, a longtime source for the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, improperly tipped off Zazi that law enforcement was on his trail in a phone call recorded by authorities. Afzali later misled them about the conversations, the agents said.
"They're not charging him with being a member of al-Qaeda, they're not charging him with being a terrorist, and he's not," Ronald Kuby, a lawyer for Afzali, said of his client. "He should be charged with criminal stupidity for trying to help the FBI and answer their questions."
Counterterrorism experts said U.S. officials were taking the case "very seriously" because of the apparent similarities to recent plots in the United Kingdom linked to al-Qaeda.
The Zazi investigation has focused on a type of improvised liquid explosive involving hydrogen peroxide -- HMTD -- that was involved in several plots in Britain traced to operatives linked to al-Qaeda, including the London transit bombings on July 7, 2005, that killed 56 people; a failed copycat attack two weeks later; and a plot, foiled by authorities in August 2006, to blow up at least seven transatlantic airliners.
The transit bombings involved people with backpack bombs, and all plots had ringleaders or other key participants with legal residency in the United Kingdom and who had traveled to Pakistan.
"The explosives element, the training and the backpacks -- all are part of the core al-Qaeda bomb-making curriculum as we've seen in two specific incidents in the United Kingdom, and if you take out the backpacks, the last three significant U.K. incidents," said Bruce R. Hoffman, a counterterrorism analyst at Georgetown University.
Unlike in recent U.S. plots -- which federal authorities often described as "aspirational" and whose leaders' search for expertise or weapons often unwittingly led to them to consult FBI informants -- Zazi may have been trained to work with explosives.
Authorities have long been concerned about the possibility that American citizens, legal residents or others with freedom to travel in the country might be recruited by terrorists, although since 2001 only a handful of people in the United States have been found with ties to senior al-Qaeda leadership.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said, "We're obviously concerned about Westerners -- and those with Western appearance -- training with terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistan border," although the number of Europeans and Americans believed to have traveled there to do so "isn't thought to be high."
In an August 2008 speech, Ted Gistaro, the outgoing U.S. national intelligence officer for transnational threats, singled out al-Qaeda's training of operatives with North American or European residency documents, including passports, who could travel to the United States without a visa.
"Al-Qaeda is working to motivate more 'homegrown' extremists -- radicals who are inspired, but not directed, by the group -- to plan attacks inside the United States," Gistaro told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonprofit foreign policy think tank.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.