By Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A01
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.
Zazi, now 25, aroused the interest of law enforcement, and he was tracked by teams of FBI agents and police, who stopped his vehicle on a bridge into Manhattan. Justice Department officials said for the first time Monday that Zazi and others had timed their plot to occur in the subway on Sept. 14, 15 or 16, but backed away after realizing that they were under surveillance.
Zazi's arrest marked the first in a wave of alarming incidents involving alleged terrorists who targeted sites in the United States and overseas, including accused Fort Hood army base shooter Nidal M. Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, suspected in the attempted Christmas Day "underwear bombing."
FBI Deputy Director John S. Pistole told reporters that the Zazi case and intelligence provided by the defendant have "given us all greater insight into the evolving nature of terrorist activities."
Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism analyst at Georgetown University, said the case was in some ways more troubling than the Christmas bombing attempt, in which a Nigerian man is suspected of trying to detonate explosives aboard a transatlantic jetliner bound for Detroit.
In this case, Zazi was a U.S. resident whom core al-Qaeda leaders were able to identify and train and who assembled his own weapons and recruited other U.S. residents to carry out an attack that could have been more chaotic and paralyzing to the nation's largest city than even an explosion aboard an airliner.
Yet, Hoffman added, it remains unclear how U.S. authorities came to suspect Zazi. Did they pick up the plot through a web of improved post-9/11 intelligence collection methods, or did the U.S. government simply stumble across an informant?
"It's a tremendous triumph for the U.S. national security system and justice system that we got him, but the circumstances that led to that, do they reflect that the U.S. is on the right track in counterterrorism, or did we just get lucky?" Hoffman said. "How much of it was skill, and how much of it was luck?"