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.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Art Folsom came in early to catch up on some paperwork. The drab office for his small legal practice on Colorado Boulevard—he mostly handled drunk driving and drug possession cases—was shared with several lawyers and a few other businesses. At around 8 that morning, the receptionist relayed a routine message to Folsom: Someone who thought he needed a lawyer had shown up in the lobby.
Najibullah Zazi didn’t know where else to turn. Another lawyer in Folsom’s suite had prepared some LLC paperwork for a friend, so Zazi figured he’d try to talk to the guy. That lawyer was in court, so Zazi ended up meeting with Folsom, who led him past the office fish tank into a small conference room. Zazi explained that his friends in Queens had gotten mixed up in something. He thought the FBI had searched his car and his computer, perhaps discovering some suspicious—but, Zazi claimed, innocuous—chemistry notes on his laptop. After a few minutes, Folsom was adamant: “Yes, you need a lawyer.”
Folsom’s sister lived in New York, and he’d noticed the CNN headline about the terrorism-related police raids in Queens a day earlier. That those raids were somehow connected to the man in front of him didn’t add up; Zazi was soft-spoken and insisted on calling him “Mr. Folsom.” “He didn’t seem like the picture in my head of someone who would commit terrorist acts,” Folsom says.
Folsom handed Zazi a few business cards and told him not to talk to anyone. The other lawyer would be back the next day and could take over the case. Until then, if anyone asked to speak with Zazi, he was to hand out Folsom’s card. “I was petrified he’d start trying to explain things to me [and get himself in trouble],” Folsom says.
Events, however, were moving too quickly. Zazi’s name leaked that afternoon in New York, with sources reporting he was the target of a federal terrorism probe. By mid-afternoon the first news crews were arriving at Zazi’s apartment. He denied any wrongdoing: “All I can say is that I have no idea what it is all about,” Zazi said, later telling the Denver Post, “I live here. I work here. Why would I have an issue with America? This is the only country that gives you freedom—freedom of religion, freedom of choice. You don’t get that elsewhere. Nobody wants to leave America. People die to come here.”
By 4 p.m., journalists were arriving at Folsom’s office. “It was surreal,” he recalls. “I was getting calls from people asking if I was going to have a presser—I didn’t even know what that was.” The attorney spent about four hours on the phone with the news media that evening. “My client has nothing to hide,” he told Fox31 News, “and we are eager to talk to the FBI.”
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Folsom needed to figure out what the FBI knew. He called the bureau that morning, telling FBI officials that he was Zazi's lawyer. It was a curious effort, the FBI's Olson says, to "explain away" the suspect's predicament.
Zazi met Folsom at his office and emerged from the building into a crowd of press on the sidewalk. They hustled toward Folsom’s car—the lawyer swatted away one camera with his briefcase—and drove to the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building, where they dodged another group of reporters on their way inside.
For the FBI, this was a gift; terrorism suspects don’t generally come knocking on the field office door. “Ultimately the case broke because of the media pressure,” Davis says. “That forced Zazi to come to us.” The bureau assigned special agent Eric C. Jergenson to lead the interrogation. Zazi and Folsom began talking with Jergenson and a second agent in a small interview room. They had surrendered their BlackBerrys and cell phones. Knowing the two men would be out of communication for a few hours, FBI agents raided Zazi’s apartment and his uncle’s house. John Scata’s team hit the latter, but found little evidence.
At Zazi’s house, as a group of journalists watched nearby, Olson’s team had more luck. The apartment immediately struck the agents as oddly empty—no couch, no chair, no table. When they opened a closet, bomb techs spotted a large five-gallon bucket full of a white, powdery substance. “The color and consistency is consistent with TATP,” the lead bomb tech told Olson. TATP had long been favored by terror groups. It was used by Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight in December 2001, and by terrorists in the London subway bombings in 2005. Palestinian terrorists dubbed TATP the “Mother of Satan” because of its power and instability. Mostly odorless and similar in consistency to powdered sugar, its three main ingredients—acetone, hydrogen peroxide, and acid—are easily attainable over the counter. If this was TATP, the bomb tech said, it was enough to take out Zazi’s building and the neighboring one, and spread damage through a much wider radius.
Olson surveyed the scene: dozens of nearby apartments, a growing pack of news media just 100 yards away, and an elementary school that backed up against the apartment complex’s rear wall. He went to Zazi’s brother, who was in the back of an FBI vehicle. “What’s in that bucket?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but you had better test it,” the brother said darkly.
Olson ordered the evacuation of the nearby apartments and pushed the media crews back another 100 yards. Then his heart fell: The bell at the elementary school was dismissing hundreds of schoolchildren, who poured onto the sidewalks around the complex. Fortunately, when the bomb squad tested the mixture, it was merely flour. But it had given the case its name: Operation High Rise.