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.
Folsom knew the obstruction charge for the destroyed hard drive was of little concern. “There were much more problematic charges coming down the pike,” Folsom says. Agents took Zazi’s fingerprints, a DNA swab, and a handwriting sample. This was during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, and Zazi had been fasting all day, so after sunset the FBI brought him a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich as the questioning continued. After they agreed to pick up the conversation the next day, the FBI drove Zazi and Folsom home. By the time Zazi arrived there, the bureau had finished its search of his apartment and airport shuttle van.
Zazi’s father, Mohammed Wali, also spoke with the FBI that Wednesday, and bureau agents caught him giving inconsistent information about his son’s activities in New York. This exposed him to a “1001 charge,” named after the section of the U.S. criminal code that makes it illegal to lie to government agents. The 1001 charge was enough to arrest and to hold either Zazi. But as long as the son was still voluntarily talking, there was no reason to take him in just yet because questions remained: What had they been planning? Was Mohammed, the stronger personality and a traditional authoritarian father, a key player, or was he merely protecting his son?
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Folsom and Zazi arrived back at the federal building the following morning with a proposition: Let’s make a deal. “We fully expected he’d be pleading guilty, so we were thinking about sentencing considerations,” Folsom says. The only way Zazi could avoid going to prison would be by providing enough information about Al Qaeda’s operations to get some kind of witness protection. His concern for his wife, children, and extended family in Pakistan—they were well within the reach of Al Qaeda and the feared Pakistani intelligence service, ISI—gave Zazi even more reason to cooperate.
The conversation again proceeded slowly. The government had offered a so-called “proffer letter,” meaning nothing Zazi said could be used directly against him, although the FBI could try to independently confirm his information. The time-sensitive nature and life-or-death stakes of Zazi’s case meant that a proffer letter needed approval from the top of the Justice Department, but getting it would hopefully let him speak more freely.
U.S. officials were desperate to learn what Zazi knew; the plot could still be advancing without him. During a break, Folsom pushed his client again: Was there an attack coming? If so, Zazi had to tell the FBI. Now. If he withheld information that could have saved lives, any hope of a deal would be gone, and Zazi would end up on death row. "There’s nothing that prepares you for asking point-blank if there’s about to be another 9/11," he says.
Folsom had by then arrived at his own conclusion: If Zazi gave him evidence of an impending attack, Folsom was prepared to hand it over to the feds. “It’s one thing to go into a drug trial knowing your client is guilty; it’s significantly different when it’s someone planning a terror attack on your country,” Folsom says. “I was pretty sure the professional ethics would have allowed that, but I’d also decided that I didn’t care. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that choice, but I couldn’t live with hundreds or thousands of deaths on my conscience.”
After the proffer letter arrived from Washington, Zazi began to relax and talk more openly. Although agents believed they’d thwarted the immediate threat, they wanted to wring more information from the suspect. Zazi had bought most of the over-the-counter ingredients for the bomb at local beauty supply stores—which FBI agents confirmed by examining the stores’ security camera footage—and he’d cooked the first batches of the explosive at Aurora’s Homestead Studio Suites on August 27 and 28. But when he’d tried to ignite some of it in the parking lot, it just flashed and burned.
Zazi then emailed his Pakistani contact for help with his recipe. It was that coded message that the government intercepted, tipping them off to Zazi’s identity. He returned to the hotel on September 6 and 7 and fiddled more with his recipe. He took some of his reworked mixture to a lonely end of East Smoky Hill Road and ignited it—this time, it exploded. Zazi had his bomb. The next morning, the FBI began following him.
As agents realized just how close they’d come to missing Zazi, everyone exhaled. He’d slipped through the many new layers of security put into place since 9/11. The FBI’s vaunted “Operation Tripwire” was designed to instruct businesses—such as beauty supply warehouses—to report suspicious purchases. But it hadn’t flagged Zazi’s shopping trips. (He’d explained to the clerks when they asked why he was purchasing so many cosmetic chemicals that he “had a lot of girlfriends.”) Similarly, despite widespread “See Something Say Something” public awareness campaigns, no one at the Studio Suites had mentioned the odd sight of a man trying to ignite a bucket full of chemicals in the complex parking lot.
If not for his chemistry failure, the FBI likely wouldn’t have known Zazi’s name until after the New York City attack. They’d persuaded him to cooperate, but as Olson explains, “The discomfort level of having this guy on the street was high. There were animated conversations inside here about the liabilities of leaving him out there.” The FBI had met its post-9/11 mandate by disrupting the terrorist plot even though they still didn’t know many details. “We still had no idea what his target was,” Olson says.