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.
At the Denver field office, the massive emergency command post had been running 24/7 for a week, filled with scores of personnel from the FBI and other agencies, including CIA officials and national security lawyers from the Department of Justice. The walls of the command post were papered with a running timeline of events, along with photos and addresses that were relevant to the investigation. Tables were strewn with documents and Chick-fil-A wrappers. The entire office pulsed as everyone worked 12-hour shifts—and often longer. “Once people realized what this was, you couldn’t get them to leave,” Olson says. As intelligence analyst Collin Husic says, “You knew this was the real thing. This is what the job is all about. You can go your whole career in the bureau without seeing something like this, especially in a place like Denver.”
Midway through the afternoon’s conversation, Jergenson laid out one of nine pages worth of handwritten bomb notes investigators had taken off Zazi’s laptop. Although the FBI didn’t know it yet, Zazi had destroyed his computer hard drive upon returning to Denver. The agents, though, told him they’d found the documents in his home that day, which Zazi knew was impossible. He then lied, claiming they were innocent chemistry drawings that he had downloaded from a book online. “It was a catch-22,” Folsom says. “We know they’re lying, but I know he’s lying about it, too. As soon as that happened, I went ‘Oh, shit.’ ”
The interview progressed haltingly. The discussion broke down whenever Zazi’s story hit a rough patch or didn’t add up. At times the suspect would seem almost set to confess, but he couldn’t quite get it out. Each time this happened, Zazi and Folsom would leave the room to confer privately and then return with just a little more information.
During one such break, Folsom confronted Zazi. The story wasn’t believable, he said. There were too many holes in the timeline. With the FBI out of the room, Zazi began to tell Folsom about Al Qaeda’s weapons training, of firing AK-47s, of rocket-propelled-grenade-launching practice in the mountains, of the bomb-making classes, and of the lesson he took on how to construct a suicide belt. “Once you got the cork pulled out, the information started to flow,” Folsom says. “At that point, I realized this wasn’t just someone who was angry. This was someone who had danced with the devil.”
Zazi grew up in the mountains of Pakistan as Osama bin Laden was setting up his mujahedeen network nearby, but he was 16 and living in Queens by the time of the 9/11 attacks. The mosque where he’d volunteered as a janitor, Masjid Hazrat Abubakr, suffered a vicious schism after 9/11 when its imam, Mohammed Sherzad, condemned bin Laden and the Taliban only to get ousted by the mosque’s more radical elements.
After 9/11, Zazi gradually became more serious about his religion. By the middle of the decade he’d begun wearing traditional tunics, grown a beard, and had become a fan of YouTube videos by Zakir Naik, who preached an unorthodox interpretation of Islam—endorsing polygamy, among other practices—though he wasn’t particularly known for promoting violence.
Zazi’s story unfolded slowly to Folsom. He hadn’t started out with the intent of launching a domestic attack. He’d read and heard about large civilian casualties from the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and he grew increasingly troubled by what was happening there. “He wanted to go over to protect his country,” Folsom says. “I know how I felt after 9/11—I wanted to strike back. He was angry about what was happening [in Afghanistan] and found a misguided way to react.”
While in Pakistan in 2008, Zazi had a cousin introduce Zazi and his two high school friends, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, to a radical cleric. The cleric ushered the boys into the shadowy world of Al Qaeda in the mountainous and lawless corner of Pakistan known as Waziristan. There, the three men met with two of Al Qaeda’s senior leaders: Saleh al‑Somali, the group’s head of external operations, and Rashid Rauf. As Ahmedzay later explained in court, “We told these two individuals that we wanted to wage jihad in Afghanistan, but they said that we would be more useful to them and to the jihad if we returned to New York and conducted operations there.” He added, “They said the most important thing was to hit well-known structures and to maximize the number of casualties.”
By fall 2008, crushing pressure from U.S. and international counterterrorism programs had forced Al Qaeda to evolve. In targeting the organization’s financing and communication networks, and supplementing that harassment with airstrikes launched by CIA drones, the United States and its allies compelled Al Qaeda to switch from centrally controlled, highly coordinated, increasingly high-profile attacks, to smaller, more opportunistic strikes. Young, green, would-be jihadists—what some have called the “cannon fodder" of the war on terror—had always been easy for Al Qaeda to find and exploit in the Middle East. Zazi, then considered a lawful permanent resident of the United States, was much more valuable. He could travel back into the United States without trouble, knew New York intimately, and could be trained cheaply to build a bomb. The Al Qaeda leaders convinced Zazi and his companions that their greatest contribution to jihad was back home. “We discussed the matter among ourselves, and we agreed to go forward with the plan,” Zazi’s co-conspirator Ahmedzay later testified. “I personally believed that conducting an operation in the United States would be the best way to end the wars.”
Hatching the Zazi plot and recruiting the three men was one of Al Qaeda’s greatest achievements since 9/11. The difficult operating environment for Al Qaeda was underscored when, soon after Zazi’s meeting with the two senior terrorist leaders, Rauf reportedly was killed by a U.S. drone attack.
Zazi himself wasn’t entirely convinced the martyrdom operation was a good idea. “He was not a huge fan of the suicide aspect,” Folsom says. “He had some reservations about what they wanted him to do.” Even so, after he arrived home in January 2009 and moved to Colorado, Zazi began assembling the ingredients for an attack.