Najibullah Zazi and Colorado's terrorist ties.
Special agent John Scata, part of a Denver international terrorism squad, had barely slept since getting the call the previous day. Intelligence officials had intercepted several email messages from a Denver man to suspected terrorists in rural Pakistan. The man was using what appeared to be code words—marriage, wedding, recipe—that hinted at a plot.
At 5 a.m. on Tuesday, September 8, 2009, Scata gathered his team in the parking lot of a P.F. Chang’s one mile from the Vistas at Saddle Rock apartment complex on East Smoky Hill Road, where Najibullah Zazi—a 24-year-old shuttle bus driver who worked at Denver International Airport—lived with his family in a third-floor unit. They had to get eyes on Zazi. Scata had a simple message for his agents: “This isn’t the usual drill.”
Shortly after dawn, Zazi emerged from his apartment building, climbed into his car, and drove away. Several FBI vehicles followed him as he went about his day. By midafternoon, Scata was back in the Denver field office, briefing his supervisors, including Jim Davis, the Denver FBI special agent in charge, and Steve Olson, the assistant special agent in charge, and getting updates.
Counterterrorism work is all about chasing ghosts. On an average day, the United States government fields some 3,000 terrorism leads. Virtually none pan out, because the bureau’s routine record searches quickly eliminate most leads. “We had expected the next piece of information that comes in would wash him out,” Olson says. But in the first hours of the investigation, every trap, every records check, every step pointed to one thing: This was no ghost. “People don’t understand how close he was to being successful,” Olson says. “Another 24 hours and he would have gotten in his car without us knowing who he was.”
That evening, surveillance teams followed Zazi and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, as they rented a red Chevrolet sedan. The bureau began to play out scenarios. They still didn't know who Zazi's co-conspirators might be or what their plot was. And they couldn't figure out why someone like Zazi—who presumably could have used one of the vans he drove every day—would need to rent a car.
The FBI has been involved in combating terrorism for most of its 100-plus-year history, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that counterterrorism became the bureau’s overriding priority. On the morning after those attacks, President George W. Bush delivered to Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller a clear message: “Don’t let this happen again.” Thousands of agents and analysts were hired, and others were reassigned from criminal matters to counterterrorism investigations. They were dispatched to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and scores of other countries to pursue terrorism links, with a new emphasis: “Prevent. Disrupt. Mitigate.”
Since 2001, the bureau—often helped along by informants—has been instrumental in stopping at least 40 known terrorist plots, most of them smaller, “lone-wolf” schemes. Although it has faced some criticism for its activities and investigative techniques, the bureau’s post-9/11 record is remarkable, with no subsequent Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil. The person who came closest to breaking that streak, according to federal prosecutors, is Najibullah Zazi.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
For the second straight morning, Zazi left his house at dawn and placed what looked like a laptop computer in his trunk. It seemed like his normal routine until he turned toward I-70. The shuttle driver was known among his co-workers as a diligent employee, putting in long hours, scrambling to find riders, and chatting up potential customers. Yet as the FBI surveillance team accelerated onto the interstate, following a healthy distance behind Zazi’s rented Chevy, it became clear he wasn’t going to work. The suspect’s car quickly shrank on the horizon, the V6 engine accelerating to speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. It was a struggle to follow without attracting suspicion. There weren’t many cars on the road at that hour, and those that were weren’t hitting triple-digit speeds.
The Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) called the Colorado State Patrol and asked one of its troopers to stop Zazi as if on a routine speed trap. Colorado trooper Cpl. Chris Lamb pulled behind the Chevy and flipped on his cruiser’s lights. Zazi stopped. The driver seemed nervous, Lamb noticed, but Zazi explained his edginess by saying he was hurrying to New York because his coffee cart business in Manhattan was having some problems.
Najibullah Zazi was born on August 10, 1985, in a northwest frontier Pakistani province that borders Afghanistan. (Although published reports have said Zazi was from Afghanistan, his family only claimed to be from there on its immigration forms because that made it easier to gain entry to the United States.) His father, Mohammed, left the family in the early 1990s to immigrate to Queens, New York, where he began driving a cab. He earned enough to pay for his family to join him a few years later.
Zazi seemingly adjusted well to life in Queens. He played basketball and attended high school in Flushing. But he was a poor student and eventually dropped out, and he later ran a doughnut and coffee-vending cart in Lower Manhattan that sported a “God Bless America” sign. Like many Americans in the early 2000s, he ran up too much debt—he opened about $50,000 worth of credit cards over several years—and eventually sought bankruptcy protection. (It later emerged that Zazi used credit cards to purchase goods, then resold them and used the cash to finance his pre-plot travels.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The investigation was leading every news cycle. John Scata received a phone call from his wife telling him the Denver FBI was on Fox News. Folsom got a confused phone call from a friend in New York City: “Why are you on the Jumbotron in Times Square?” Although Folsom was getting publicly flogged for letting his client speak with the FBI, in at least one way, the lawyer was savvier than he appeared. The media didn’t know yet that an immunity deal had been negotiated, and Folsom purposely avoided discussing it. “The bureau made it clear they’d prefer that word of the immunity deal not be released,” Folsom says. “I didn’t lie to anyone, but I said things that I knew could be construed incorrectly.”
Folsom wasn’t a natural fit for this case. Then 37, he had almost no experience with the FBI and zero national security background. Raised in Pennsylvania, he’d gotten into law intending to do environmental work. He moved to Colorado to attend the University of Denver Law School, where he’d been one of the editors of the Water Law Review. As the Zazi story emerged, Folsom faced withering criticism. Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin wrote, “There are many things we have yet to learn in the case of Najibullah Zazi. But one thing is clear: [Arthur] Folsom—attorney to the shuttle-bus-driving alleged terrorist—can’t possibly be qualified to defend him.” His colleagues also questioned Folsom’s qualifications. “He had no business going in there,” says another lawyer who worked on the Zazi case. “Anyone who watched Law & Order knows you don’t do that. I watched that train wreck and hoped Art wouldn’t hurt himself too much.”
The bureau, of course, welcomed such a weak adversary. “He’s the MVP of this case,” says one federal official with a laugh, “no question.”
Friday, September 18, 2009
The first thing Folsom noticed on the third day of negotiations was that a new piece of art had appeared on the wall of the FBI conference room. Unless the bureau had a pressing need to redecorate overnight, Folsom now knew they were “secretly” videotaping the conversation through the new wooden nautical-themed clock. They were actually doing much more than that: The room behind the clock was crowded with attorneys, analysts, and officials from a variety of federal agencies looking in.
The number of observers involved in the case meant that the steady stream of news leaks had become a torrent. Folsom and Zazi began the session angrily. “Why should I talk to you when I know it’ll be on the 5-o’clock news?” Zazi said. During a midmorning break, Folsom got an email from a reporter asking about information Zazi had just provided to the FBI that day. He pulled aside two prosecutors and showed them the message. “We've got a real problem—this is what we’re talking about this morning.” The prosecutors apologized for the leaks. Folsom nearly shouted: “The Titanic had a leak—this is everywhere. My guy’s going to get killed tonight.” Threats and ugly voicemails had already begun to arrive at Folsom’s law office. After one warning, local police arrived to guard Folsom’s building.
The FBI also had uncovered another negotiating tool: Zazi’s family had immigration problems. One of Zazi’s “brothers” was actually a cousin. Zazi’s parents had claimed him as a son on their immigration forms. Even though the interrogators told Zazi that they could deport his mother and cousin, Zazi refused to provide information about his co-conspirators, the two high school friends he’d traveled with to Pakistan, saying his religion didn’t allow for him to indict others. He also continued dissembling, at one point claiming that he intended to detonate a suicide bomb at a local Wal-Mart “to make a statement to the media.” In the room next door, the hidden audience raptly pressed together as Zazi remained evasive.
His stonewalling caused the talks to falter, and once again the FBI drove Zazi and Folsom home, fully expecting the two men to return the next day. The FBI’s offer, the interrogators reminded Folsom and Zazi as they left, hinged upon full disclosure: “This is an all-or-nothing deal.”
Saturday, September 19, 2009
When Folsom and Zazi talked that morning by phone, Zazi told his lawyer he wouldn’t violate his religious beliefs and inform on his friends. “I’d rather spend life in prison than eternity in hell,” he said. Resigned to his client’s impending arrest, Folsom advised Zazi to gather his family and spend his last remaining hours of freedom with them. Make sure to touch them and hug them, Folsom said, because you may never be allowed physical contact with family members again. He left Zazi with one last thought: “When the knock on the door comes—don’t resist.”
Folsom called the government: There would be no more talks. Davis’ team obtained a warrant, and the arresting officers gathered that afternoon at a nearby high school parking lot. Davis had finally decided to embrace the media circus; they were going into Zazi’s apartment complex, fast and loud. “When you get him in the Suburban,” Davis told his agents, “make sure the windows are down. I want everyone to see that we have him.”
As Davis drove toward Zazi’s apartment a Denver reporter called. “I hear you’re on your way to arrest Zazi.” Even more disturbing, the New York Post called Zazi’s home phone and warned him that the bureau was coming—the media was giving a suspected suicide bomber a heads-up.
The convoy of black SUVs, lights spinning, pulled into Zazi’s parking lot, greeted by TV lights and flashbulbs. In their blue raid jackets, agents piled out. Minutes later Jergenson led a handcuffed Zazi down the steps. Simultaneously, the FBI arrested Mohammed Wali Zazi and Ahmad Wais Afzali, the Queens imam who had tipped off the Zazis that the FBI was asking about them. “The arrests carried out tonight are part of an ongoing and fast-paced investigation,” the assistant attorney general for national security, David Kris, told the media. “It is important to note that we have no specific information regarding the timing, location, or target of any planned attack.”
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.