Homegrown Terror

Two years ago, Najibullah Zazi left his Aurora apartment for New York with plans to blow up part of the city’s subway system. Thanks to old-fashioned detective work, 21st-century counterterrorism techniques—and a bit of luck—federal, Colorado, and Denver officials were able to disrupt one of Al Qaeda’s most terrifying plots since 9/11.

November 2011

Special agent John Scata, part of a Denver international terrorism squad, had barely slept since getting the call the previous day. Intelligence officials had intercepted several email messages from a Denver man to suspected terrorists in rural Pakistan. The man was using what appeared to be code words—marriage, wedding, recipe—that hinted at a plot.

At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, September 8, 2009, Scata gathered his team in the parking lot of a P.F. Chang’s one mile from the Vistas at Saddle Rock apartment complex on East Smoky Hill Road, where Najibullah Zazi—a 24-year-old shuttle bus driver who worked at Denver International Airport—lived with his family in a third-floor unit. They had to get eyes on Zazi. Scata had a simple message for his agents: “This isn’t the usual drill.”

Shortly after dawn, Zazi emerged from his apartment building, climbed into his car, and drove away. Several FBI vehicles followed him as he went about his day. By midafternoon, Scata was back in the Denver field office, briefing his supervisors, including Jim Davis, the Denver FBI special agent in charge, and Steve Olson, the assistant special agent in charge, and getting updates.

Counterterrorism work is all about chasing ghosts. On an average day, the United States government fields some 3,000 terrorism leads. Virtually none pan out, because the bureau’s routine record searches quickly eliminate most leads. “We had expected the next piece of information that comes in would wash him out,” Olson says. But in the first hours of the investigation, every trap, every records check, every step pointed to one thing: This was no ghost. “People don’t understand how close he was to being successful,” Olson says. “Another 24 hours and he would have gotten in his car without us knowing who he was.”

That evening, surveillance teams followed Zazi and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, as they rented a red Chevrolet sedan. The bureau began to play out scenarios. They still didn't know who Zazi's co-conspirators might be or what their plot was. And they couldn't figure out why someone like Zazi—who presumably could have used one of the vans he drove every day—would need to rent a car.

The FBI has been involved in combating terrorism for most of its 100-plus-year history, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that counterterrorism became the bureau’s overriding priority. On the morning after those attacks, President George W. Bush delivered to Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller a clear message: “Don’t let this happen again.” Thousands of agents and analysts were hired, and others were reassigned from criminal matters to counterterrorism investigations. They were dispatched to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and scores of other countries to pursue terrorism links, with a new emphasis: “Prevent. Disrupt. Mitigate.”

Since 2001, the bureau—often helped along by informants—has been instrumental in stopping at least 40 known terrorist plots, most of them smaller, “lone-wolf” schemes. Although it has faced some criticism for its activities and investigative techniques, the bureau’s post-9/11 record is remarkable, with no subsequent Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil. The person who came closest to breaking that streak, according to federal prosecutors, is Najibullah Zazi.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

For the second straight morning, Zazi left his house at dawn and placed what looked like a laptop computer in his trunk. It seemed like his normal routine until he turned toward I-70. The shuttle driver was known among his co-workers as a diligent employee, putting in long hours, scrambling to find riders, and chatting up potential customers. Yet as the FBI surveillance team accelerated onto the interstate, following a healthy distance behind Zazi’s rented Chevy, it became clear he wasn’t going to work. The suspect’s car quickly shrank on the horizon, the V6 engine accelerating to speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. It was a struggle to follow without attracting suspicion. There weren’t many cars on the road at that hour, and those that were weren’t hitting triple-digit speeds.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) called the Colorado State Patrol and asked one of its troopers to stop Zazi as if on a routine speed trap. Colorado trooper Cpl. Chris Lamb pulled behind the Chevy and flipped on his cruiser’s lights. Zazi stopped. The driver seemed nervous, Lamb noticed, but Zazi explained his edginess by saying he was hurrying to New York because his coffee cart business in Manhattan was having some problems.

Najibullah Zazi was born on August 10, 1985, in a northwest frontier Pakistani province that borders Afghanistan. (Although published reports have said Zazi was from Afghanistan, his family only claimed to be from there on its immigration forms because that made it easier to gain entry to the United States.) His father, Mohammed, left the family in the early 1990s to immigrate to Queens, New York, where he began driving a cab. He earned enough to pay for his family to join him a few years later.

Zazi seemingly adjusted well to life in Queens. He played basketball and attended high school in Flushing. But he was a poor student and eventually dropped out, and he later ran a doughnut and coffee-vending cart in Lower Manhattan that sported a “God Bless America” sign. Like many Americans in the early 2000s, he ran up too much debt—he opened about $50,000 worth of credit cards over several years—and eventually sought bankruptcy protection. (It later emerged that Zazi used credit cards to purchase goods, then resold them and used the cash to finance his pre-plot travels.)