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.
Around 2006, Zazi flew to Pakistan, where he met and married a wife, his then-19-year-old first cousin, by family arrangement. He returned occasionally to see his wife and two children. Zazi’s final trip to Pakistan began in August 2008 and lasted nearly five months. He arrived back in New York in January 2009 and soon moved to Aurora, living at first with his uncle’s family. Zazi landed a job at the airport, and his parents and siblings joined him in Aurora that summer.
Zazi kept the coffee cart in Manhattan and leased it, receiving regular payments from his lessee. So the excuse trooper Lamb relayed to the FBI was reasonable. The officer couldn’t have known that—the day before Zazi rented the car and just hours before intelligence officials uncovered the inflammatory emails—this speeding driver had perfected an explosive recipe he hoped to use a week later to bomb the New York City subway.
After Lamb let Zazi drive on without issuing a ticket, he resumed his trip east with the FBI surveillance team straining to keep pace. They finally knew their destination: New York City, almost 1,800 miles away.
Back in Denver, Davis couldn’t find help. The case wasn’t on anyone’s radar yet. To get ahead of Zazi, Davis had four FBI agents flown to St. Louis, where they rented cars and picked up the chase 900 miles from Denver. By late evening, agents from the Cleveland division of the FBI started tailing Zazi when he got to Ohio. They spent part of their night watching him nap outside a truck stop near Columbus.
At the field office command post, Davis told the agents, “Go all in. Shut everything else down.” FBI assets from across Wyoming and Colorado—intelligence analysts, SWAT teams, bomb technicians, evidence search teams, hazardous material teams, and every surveillance car and plane the bureau possessed anywhere close to the Rockies—were starting to stream toward Denver.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
As Zazi began driving the last 500 miles to New York, his case finally had the full attention of the U.S. government. The eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was a day away, and Davis was now doing regular secure video teleconferences with the heads of the New York field office and the FBI’s National Security Branch, among others. During one video call, an official cut Davis off: “Hold on, that’s the White House calling.” The case was being briefed right up to President Obama.
The Port Authority Police Department stopped Zazi’s car near the George Washington Bridge and told him it was a random checkpoint, and they brought out a police dog, seemingly searching for drugs. It was a ruse. But the police had made a crucial mistake: The dog they used to search Zazi’s car had only been trained on black powder, not TATP (triacetone triperoxide), which was the explosive Zazi planned to use. The dog didn’t trigger an alert, and Zazi was allowed into the city.
Zazi stayed with a friend in New York, and on the morning of September 11 he visited his coffee cart, just blocks from ground zero. One of the tensest moments of the entire investigation came when the New York surveillance teams momentarily lost eyes on Zazi.
As the FBI’s monitoring of Zazi faltered, his car remained parked in Queens. FBI officials in Denver, Washington, and New York hurriedly convened a videoconference and made a decision: Hook it up. The NYPD towed the car and the FBI searched it, but when Zazi eventually retrieved it, two things seemed suspicious: The car was towed even though it hadn’t been parked illegally; and when Zazi opened the laptop he’d left inside, the battery was fully charged, even though it should have run down a bit in sleep mode. Someone had searched his computer—and overcharged the battery.
Between the traffic stop in Colorado, the checkpoint entering New York, and the towed car, Zazi began to think the government must be onto him. Then he got confirmation: An imam he knew in Queens called Zazi’s father in Colorado to tell him the FBI had been asking about his son. Mohammed Zazi, furious and confused, called Najibullah. “What has happened?” he asked. “What have you guys done?” After they hung up, the imam called Zazi, worried, and advised his young friend, “Don’t get involved in Afghanistan garbage, Iraq garbage.”
The son panicked and disposed of the tools he’d intended to use in the attack. He flushed the TATP at his friend’s house, he left other materials in a dumpster behind the Queens mosque where he’d been a volunteer janitor, and he flew back to Colorado on September 12. Once home, he enlisted his family to help him dispose of the bomb’s ingredients. They believed, correctly, that the FBI was eavesdropping, and referred to the potential evidence by the code word “medicine.”
As Zazi later testified, the attention from law enforcement disrupted his plans. “We intend[ed] to obtain and assemble the remaining components to build a bomb over the weekend. The plan was to conduct martyrdom operations on subway lines in Manhattan as soon as the materials were ready—Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.”
Monday, September 14, 2009
Hours before dawn, the New York JTTF raided multiple locations in Queens, including the friend’s apartment where Zazi had stayed, but failed to turn up any explosives. The FBI questioned the residents. The bureau feared that Zazi and his accomplices, whoever they might be, would destroy any evidence. And the suspect list was expanding. “This wasn’t a laser focus on Najibullah Zazi,” Olson says. By this time a number of possible suspects were under active investigation, each one assigned a case agent, who were aided by financial and intelligence analysts to pursue every possible lead.
The notoriously leaky New York JTTF brought the raids in Queens into the public eye. “The FBI is seriously spooked about these guys,” a former senior counterterrorism official told the New York Daily News. “This is not some ... FBI informant–driven case. This is the real thing.” Meanwhile, the Denver FBI office was getting help from the Aurora and Denver police and the Colorado State Patrol. Olson stationed a team of state troopers on E-470 near Zazi’s apartment, with chilling guidance: “I’m only going to instruct you to stop him [pull him over] if he leaves his house carrying a backpack”—in other words, if the FBI thought Zazi was en route to execute a suicide bombing. “This is a dangerous thing I’m asking you to do,” he repeatedly acknowledged.
In some ways, the Denver field office was well suited to tackle an active Al Qaeda cell on American soil. Davis, the special agent in charge, had experienced firsthand the FBI’s post-9/11 transformation. The son of a Michigan cop, Davis always knew that he wanted to go into law enforcement. His father told him to skip the dreary days of traffic duty and go right to the meaningful investigative stuff: Be an FBI agent. Davis never seriously considered another career.
He spent most of his tenure working “white-collar” crimes; on 9/11 he’d been heading the government fraud unit at the bureau headquarters in Washington. Two years later, when Davis heard that the FBI was deploying agents to Iraq to go after Al Qaeda, he volunteered. Weeks into his tour, on December 13, 2003, Davis awoke to rumors that Saddam Hussein had been located. Later that day, American Special Forces arrested the most wanted man in Iraq and handed him over to the FBI for processing. Davis held the dictator, as he would any captured fugitive, while agents took Saddam’s fingerprints and mug shot.
Davis served subsequent tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, working counterterrorism in the war zones, before he was assigned to the Denver field office in 2008. (Each of his assistant special agents in charge, Steve Olson and Mike Rankin, had also served in Iraq.) It was supposed to have been a stopover for Davis, the capstone to his 25-year FBI career, but the Colorado lifestyle convinced him to stay. “It’s an easy place to fall in love with,” he says.
Today, Davis is the Governor John Hickenlooper–appointed executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Sitting in his third-floor office in Lakewood, the walls decorated with mementos and pictures from a generation in law enforcement, Davis says, “I’ve had a good career, but nothing compares to Zazi. Every day something unexpected happened. Every day was just a little bit more surreal.”