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 recruited his first legal boss, well-known Denver attorney J. Michael Dowling, to help with the Zazi defense. Minutes before the detention hearing’s scheduled start several days after his arrest, Folsom saw a federal prosecutor enter the courtroom with an enormous stack of papers. That can’t be good, he thought. Indeed, the government had added to its initial 1001 charge; now they were accusing Zazi of plotting a terrorist attack on the United States. His bond denied, Zazi boarded a U.S. Marshals Learjet the next day for New York City.
Folsom was off the case by November. Dowling took over but eventually departed after he and Zazi differed on legal strategy. In summer 2010, Zazi’s planned attack on New York was linked to two other plots in Norway and Britain. All three involved similar explosives and targets, all three were put in motion by Saleh al-Somali before his death from another reported drone strike, and all three were unraveled by authorities before the bombers could strike.
The Queens imam who betrayed the Zazi investigation pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials and left the U.S. Zazi’s father was found guilty last summer of obstruction of justice. His trial documented for the first time how the family had helped Zazi destroy evidence after his ill-fated trip to New York.
Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty to charges including providing material support for a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy in a foreign country to commit murder, and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Zazi’s former lawyer, Dowling, thinks his client mostly was a victim of circumstance—an easily manipulated and misguided pawn. “He’s an American kid who got excited reading about jihad and wanted to be a part of it,” Dowling says. “He wasn’t on the starting team.” During his allocution in court, as part of his guilty plea, Zazi offered insight into his own chilling logic for undertaking such a potentially deadly plot. When the judge asked whether his actions were in the nature of a suicide bomber, Zazi clarified: “I have a different explanation to that. To me, it meant that I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the United States military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan by sacrificing my soul for the sake of saving other souls.”
FBI officials say Zazi’s justifications are irrelevant; it’s clear to them that Zazi was intent on mass murder. “He was and is a committed terrorist,” Olson says. “He would have killed lots of people.” Scata is equally blunt: “Regardless of whether anyone knows, we saved a lot of lives.”
Operation High Rise showcased the Obama administration’s approach to terrorism—a mix of handcuffs and Hellfire missiles. Zazi was questioned, charged, and held to account in our criminal justice system, while the plotters who were out of reach of U.S. authorities were targeted and killed by missiles fired from CIA drones. “In this case, as it has in so many other cases,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference announcing Zazi’s plea, “the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists, one that works in concert with the intelligence community and our military.”
Two years later, as the nation somberly marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with yet another vague terror threat against New York City, Zazi has disappeared from public view. Although his guilty plea suggested he would face life in prison, Zazi’s first scheduled sentencing date—June 25, 2010—came and went with no word or sign of him. It was rescheduled several times over the following year, but to date Zazi hasn’t made a subsequent court appearance. The FBI and the Justice Department both declined to comment on Zazi’s whereabouts. He was moved long ago from the detention facility in Brooklyn to an undisclosed location. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has no public record of him.
The government doesn’t lose such high-profile prisoners, so Zazi’s uncertain status likely means he’s still cooperating with the government. While Zazi did not appear at his father’s trial last summer, Justice Department officials say he might still appear at co-conspirator Adis Medunjanin’s trial, set for January. Moreover, Ahmedzay was indicted in 2010 on the same charges that Zazi admitted to earlier, which seems to indicate that Zazi helped law enforcement build its case against Ahmedzay.
In terrorism cases like Zazi’s—with multiple trials playing out where a cooperating defendant can still prove useful—sentencing of the cooperating defendant can be delayed, sometimes for years. Art Folsom says that a reduced sentence and witness protection for his family was Zazi’s goal from the beginning. “At the start, we wanted witness protection,” Folsom says. “I guess he got there eventually.” (Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman in Washington, says, “For obvious reasons, the Justice Department does not comment on whether an individual is in the witness protection program.”) All of which means that Najibullah Zazi—the central figure in one of the most dangerous terror plots to target the United States in the last decade—could someday end up free under the guard of the witness protection program, a reward for years of cooperation that began with his arrival at the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building on a sunny September morning in 2009.
Garrett M. Graff, the editor of the Washingtonian magazine, is the author of the best-selling history of the FBI’s counterterrorism program, The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, which was published this year by Little, Brown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.