Najibullah Zazi pleads guilty in New York subway bomb plot

Terror suspect Najibullah Zazi has pleaded guilty to three counts of terror charges in a federal court in Brooklyn. Armen Keteyian reports.
By Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An airport shuttle bus driver who plotted to detonate potent explosives in New York's subway system pleaded guilty Monday for his role in a "martyrdom operation" that authorities called one of the most serious terrorism plots on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Najibullah Zazi's plea in a Brooklyn courtroom gave the Obama administration a new argument in its battle with Republican critics and predecessors over its handling of national security threats.

Zazi agreed to plead guilty to three criminal charges and to share information about confederates overseas. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the deal demonstrated anew the ability of the U.S. court system to dispense justice to terrorists.

"In this case, as it has in so many other cases, the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists, one that works in concert with the intelligence community and our military," Holder said at a news conference.

Law enforcement sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, said Zazi began to accelerate his cooperation after authorities charged his Afghan-born father with crimes and threatened to charge his mother with immigration offenses -- options that are not available in the military justice system.

While the attorney general was asserting that the civilian courts work, however, other members of the Obama administration strained to resolve a greater problem: how to clear a path to trial for the people accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Justice Department plan to hold the case in a Lower Manhattan courthouse collapsed under political pressure last month. President Obama and White House staff members met Monday in Washington with New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D), who told them that a trial in New York for Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged conspirators would "exacerbate tension and anxiety in the area," according to Bloomberg News.

"The White House was sensitive, heard the complaints and is reconsidering," Paterson said after the meeting. "Whichever decision they make, we'll abide by it."

Members of Congress from both major political parties are pushing legislation that would require Mohammed to be tried in a military court. Holder reiterated Monday that the civilian court system was well equipped to handle "thugs" and that "to denigrate" the courts "is more about politics than facts." But he also left the door open for a military commission case.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn kept their plea agreement with Zazi under seal, but new details about the path that led the suburban Denver man into terrorism emerged in court.

Zazi, an Afghan immigrant residing legally in the United States, traveled to an al-Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan in August 2008 to receive weapons training so he could fight alongside the Taliban, according to Justice Department and FBI officials. But jihadists redirected him and two confederates to focus their energies on a suicide attack on the U.S. mainland.

Zazi returned to Colorado in January 2009 with notes on how to mix explosive chemicals. He procured large volumes of beauty supplies that contained hydrogen peroxide to make TATP, the explosive involved in the 2005 bombings of London's transit system, authorities said. The final stages of the plot came into focus in September, Holder said, when Zazi drove a rented car to New York, days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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