NBC News and news services
updated 4/23/2010 3:14:59 PM ET 2010-04-23T19:14:59

Prosecutors say two al-Qaida leaders met with New York terror suspects in Pakistan and ordered them to conduct a suicide bomb attack on city subways.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Knox identified them as senior operative Saleh al-Somali and Rashid Rauf. Both died in strikes in the past year in Pakistan.

Knox made the disclosure in Brooklyn federal court Friday as Zarein Ahmedzay pleaded guilty to the suicide bomb plot last September.

Ahmedzay said in court in Brooklyn that he had received orders from leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network to carry out the foiled plot in September 2009 to bomb Manhattan subway lines. He also pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaida.

Authorities say he joined admitted al-Qaida associate Najibullah Zazi and another friend from their Queens high school on a trip to Pakistan in 2008 to seek terrorism training.

Zazi, a Colorado airport van driver, admitted earlier this year that he tested bomb-making materials in a Denver suburb before traveling by car to New York with the intent of attacking the subway system to avenge U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Ahmedzay and the third suspect, Adis Medunjanin, had previously pleaded not guilty to charges they sought to join Zazi in what prosecutors described as three “coordinated suicide bombing attacks” on Manhattan subway lines. The bombings were planned for the days after the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, authorities said.

At first, the Al-Qaida leadership "emphasized the need to hit well-known structures and maximize the number of casualties," the Justice Department told NBC News. But, Zazi later decided it would be easier to attack the subways, prosecutors said.

"Zazi traveled to New York from Colorado and the three Americans met in Queens and agreed to carry out suicide bombings during the month of Ramadan (Aug. 22, 2009 to Sept. 20, 2009). They agreed that Zazi would prepare the explosives, that Zazi and Ahmedzay would assemble the devices in New York, and that all three would conduct suicide attacks. Ahmedzay later evaluated potential bombing targets in Manhattan," according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors said Zazi was able to assemble explosives for the detonator components of the bombs. In July and August 2009, he then bought large amounts of the chemicals needed to make the rest of the bombs.

The alleged New York plot was disrupted in early September when police officials stopped Zazi’s car as it entered New York.

The attacks were modeled after the London transit system bombings in July 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 people and themselves in an attack on three subway trains and a bus, prosecutors said.

Last month, an Afghanistan-born imam linked to the suspects pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when asked about the men. He was sentenced to time served and ordered to leave the United States.

Officials have said a fourth suspect is in custody in Pakistan, but have given no other details about him.

NBC News' Pete Williams and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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