An Afghan immigrant who received explosives training from al-Qaida went from one beauty supply store to another, buying up large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and nail-polish remover, in a chilling plot to build bombs for attacks on U.S. soil, authorities charged Thursday.
Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old shuttle driver at the Denver airport, was indicted in New York on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Investigators said they found bomb-making instructions on his computer's hard drive and said Zazi used a hotel room in Colorado to try to cook up explosives a few weeks ago before a trip to New York.
The extent of Zazi's ties to al-Qaida was unclear, but if the allegations prove true, this could be the first operating al-Qaida cell to be uncovered inside the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Over the past few days, talk of the possible plot set off the most intense flurry of national terrorism warnings since the aftermath of 9/11.
Prosecutors said they have yet to establish exactly when and where the Zazi attacks were supposed to take place. But Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington, "We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted."
Zazi was arrested in Denver last weekend and was charged along with his father and a New York City imam with lying to investigators. Authorities said in the past few days that they feared Zazi and others might have been planning to detonate homemade bombs on New York trains, and warnings went out to transit systems, stadiums and hotels nationwide.
Explosives built with hydrogen peroxide killed 52 people four years ago in the London transit system. They are easy to conceal and detonate, and last week's warnings asked authorities to be on the lookout for them.
Zazi left a Denver court Thursday without commenting and will be transferred soon to New York. He and his lawyer have denied he is a terrorist.
In three unrelated terrorism cases elsewhere Thursday:
- Federal prosecutors arrested a 19-year-old Jordanian national, Maher Husein Smadi, and charged him with trying to bomb a downtown Dallas skyscraper.
- Two North Carolina men under arrest since July on international terrorism charges were also accused by prosecutors of plotting to kill U.S. military personnel.
Trips to beauty supply stores
The two-page indictment in the Zazi case offers few details, but a separate document released Thursday — a government motion seeking to deny bail to the 24-year-old Afghan immigrant — lays out evidence gathered by investigators.
According to prosecutors' account, Zazi — a legal U.S. resident who immigrated in 1999 — began plotting as early as August 2008 to "use one or more weapons of mass destruction." That was when he and others traveled from Newark, N.J., to Pakistan, where he received the explosives training, prosecutors said.
Within days of returning from Pakistan in early 2009, he moved to the Denver suburb of Aurora, where he used a computer to research homemade bomb ingredients and to look up beauty supply stores where he could buy them, according to prosecutors.
During the summer, Zazi and three unidentified associates bought "unusually large quantities" of hydrogen peroxide and acetone — a flammable solvent found in nail-polish remover — from beauty supply stores in the Denver area, prosecutors said.
A second law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said associates of Zazi visited Colorado from New York to help him buy the chemicals. The official said they used stolen credit cards to make the purchases and then returned to New York.
Security video and receipts show that some of the purchases were made near a Colorado hotel, according to court papers. On Sept. 6 and 7, Zazi checked into a suite at the hotel with a kitchen and a stove, the papers say. He tried to contact an unidentified associate "seeking to correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives."
"Each communication," the papers say, was "more urgent than the last. ... Zazi reportedly emphasized in the communication that he needed the answers right away."
Chemical residue allegedly found
On those days, Zazi rented a suite at a hotel where he lives in Aurora, Colo., authorities charge. The room had a kitchen, and subsequent FBI testing for explosives in the suite found chemical residue in the vent above the stove.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that "we are investigating a wide range of leads related to this alleged conspiracy, and we will continue to work around the clock to ensure that anyone involved is brought to justice.
"We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted," he added.
Senior counterterrorism officials, speaking with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said investigators are "actively" monitoring multiple suspects in New York and Denver.
The number keeps changing, said one official, depending on analysis of contacts that Zazi has had in the U.S. in recent weeks. At one point last week, the number had reached eight in New York and five in Denver.
Zazi has publicly denied any terrorist plotting but authorities have said he admitted to the FBI that he took a bomb-making course at a training camp in Pakistan.
One official said there are conflicting signals about whether the alleged plot is connected to al-Qaida. Among those under surveillance are immigrants from at least three predominantly Muslim states, suggesting the involvement of an international terror group, the official said.
Officials say sponsorship of the camp where Zazi allegedly received terrorist training is uncertain, with the possibility that it was not an al-Qaida camp but run instead by one of the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan. Officials noted that two Pakistani groups, Lashkhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed, both have camps.
"It doesn’t really matter," said one of them. "The camps all espouse the same basic philosophy and teach the same basic techniques. It’s about killing the infidel."
There is no indication of involvement by al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri, one official said.
Other pieces of evidence developed by investigators show a lack of sophistication that would be unusual for an al-Qaida plot, including the fact that three of those suspected of involvement visited a U-Haul office in Queens to rent a trailer but none had credit cards, an official said.
Obama briefed regularly
Still, say officials, the case is viewed as serious enough for President Barack Obama to receive daily updates — sometimes twice a day — from law enforcement and intelligence officials. The documents released Thursday don't specify a specific time and place of a possible attack, but counterterrorism agents feared he and others might have been planning to detonate homemade bombs on New York City commuter trains.
Newsweek reported Thursday that investigators have not yet recovered all of the explosives components they accuse Zazi of purchasing.
Authorities plan to transfer Zazi to the federal court in the New York borough of Brooklyn to face the new charge.
Facing an earlier charge of lying to investigators, Zazi and his father appeared in a Denver court Thursday, while the New York City imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali also went before a Brooklyn court.
Zazi's hearing was delayed until Friday after his lawyer said he had not yet received the new charges.
His father, Mohammed Zazi, was ordered freed under court supervision until an Oct. 9 hearing. Afzali was released in New York on $1.5 million bond.
Authorities earlier said they found bomb-making instructions on a hard drive on Zazi's laptop computer but still were unsure of the specific target or scope of a possible terrorist attack.
The arrests came after the raids of several apartments in the Queens neighborhood, where Zazi had driven from Denver to visit earlier this month, and were followed by a flurry of nationwide warnings of possible strikes on transit, sports and entertainment complexes.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement had been monitoring Zazi for a year, suggested one official. Their initial interest was spurred by contacts he had made in Pakistan with "well known bad guys with reputations and histories," that is terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The contacts were mostly “message traffic”, said the official, that is telephone conversations and e-mail. Once U.S. intelligence understood Zazi was a U.S. resident, the case was turned over to federal law enforcement.
But questions lingered about whether early missteps hindered the investigation. A criminal complaint suggests police acting without the FBI's knowledge might have inadvertently blown the surveillance and forced investigators' hand by questioning Afzali — considered a trusted police source in the community — about Zazi and other possible plotters.
The imam, it says, turned around and tipped off Zazi by calling him the next day and saying in a recorded conversation, "They asked me about you guys."
The detectives referred to in the recently unsealed criminal complaint work for a division that operates independently from an FBI-run terrorism task force.
Police officials say that their investigators reached out to Afzali — showing him pictures of four possible suspects to identify, including Zazi — only after receiving fresh information from the terrorism task force that a terrorism plot was possibly in progress.
In a joint statement, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Joe Demarest, head of the FBI office in New York, denied reports that the questioning of Afzali and his alleged betrayal had caused a rift between the agencies.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed current and former police officials, reported in Thursday editions that the New York Police Department transferred two commanders this week, including one from its counterterrorism bureau.