It has been nearly 10 years since Najibullah Zazi and two friends plotted to detonate homemade explosives on the New York City subway system near the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
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At the time, then-Attorney General Eric Holder called it “one of the most serious terrorist threats” that the nation had faced since the attacks. But on Thursday, when Zazi appears in Brooklyn federal court to be sentenced, he could get far less than the life in prison he faces after cooperating with authorities ever since he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in 2010.
“Zazi has provided extraordinary cooperation, meeting with the government more than 100 times, viewing hundreds of photographs and providing information that assisted law enforcement officials in a number of different investigations even where Zazi did not personally know the subjects of those investigations,” federal prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum.
The extent of Zazi’s cooperation has never been formally articulated. A sentencing memorandum filed by prosecutors on Wednesday was redacted, but it made clear that Zazi has been a vital source for those in the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities who sought to understand al-Qaeda, its motivations and its methods.
As part of that, the memorandum notes that he “directly contributed to the prosecutions of numeous individuals by the U.S. government,” including testifying during the trials of Adis Medunjanin, a co-conspirator in the subway bomb plot, and Abid Naseer, a leader of one of three al-Qaeda cells tasked with conducting terrorist bombings in Western countries in 2009. Zazi also provided information that led to the prosecution of other individuals, the memo said.
“Once Zazi decided to cooperate in February 2010, he gave the government his full, complete cooperation,” the memo said. “He proffered at great length about every aspect of his conduct without minimizing his actions, nor were there any areas of questioning that Zazi refused to address.”
Zazi was born in Afghanistan and he grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, before moving to Queens, New York, when he was 14. Zazi went to Flushing High School but did not graduate. He operated a coffee cart on Wall Street before a 2008 trip to Pakistan.
“While in Pakistan, Zazi and his co-conspirators joined al-Qaeda, received training in weapons and explosives and agreed to conduct a terrorist attack in New York City,” federal prosecutors said.
In the last decade, Zazi has told authorities about his experience at an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, where he and his friends had gone thinking they would join the Taliban. It was there that Zazi committed to the subway attack, which was plotted in Colorado, where Zazi had been working as a shuttle bus driver at Denver International Airport.
The plot involved making homemade explosives from a combination of beauty products in an Aurora, Colorado, hotel room and driving them into New York City over the George Washington Bridge.
Although the precise timing of the attacks had not been worked out, federal prosecutors said Zazi and his accomplices “had agreed on the ultimate goal of detonating the bombs during suicide attacks in the New York City subway system.”