U.S.: More Revelations in the Zazi Case

7 MINS READSep 24, 2009 | 21:25 GMT
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Recent documents filed in federal district court in the case of Najibullah Zazi provide a lot of new insight into the scope and maturity of the alleged plot. The new details also allow us to draw parallels to a number of past cases and highlight a number of trends STRATFOR has been following.
The Memorandum Seeking Pre-trial Detention of Najibullah Zazi The Indictment of Najibullah Zazi Stratfor is not responsible for the content of other Web sites. A motion seeking pre-trial detention for Najibullah Zazi was filed in federal district court on Sept. 24 in Brooklyn, by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York. Zazi, who was arrested with two other men (one of whom was his father) on Sept. 19 and charged in a criminal complaint with making false statements to investigators, was indicted on Sept. 23 on a charge of conspiracy to use one or more improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The detention motion filed on Sept. 24 sought to keep Zazi in government custody pending the outcome of his trial and made two arguments for Zazi's continued detention: one, that as a resident alien with strong ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Zazi was a flight risk; and two, as someone who was involved in a conspiracy to manufacture an IED, he was a threat to the public. Zazi's detention hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25. The detention motion is the most detailed account of Zazi's activities the U.S. government has provided to date. The motion repeats previously disclosed information about Zazi's attendance at a jihadist training camp in Pakistan, where he received instruction on manufacturing improvised explosive mixtures and devices from August 2008 through January 2009, and about his efforts to conceal his notes from the bomb-making class by scanning them and sending them to himself via Web e-mail accounts. But the statement also provides additional details pertaining to Zazi's bomb-making notes and outlines some of the actions Zazi took prior to his trip to New York — actions that caused the authorities to have a great deal of concern about his trip. The motion states that Zazi's notes on bomb making contained instructions for manufacturing the improvised explosive mixture tri-acetone tri-peroxide (TATP). TATP is made from easily obtained items — acetone, peroxide and acid — but it is notoriously dangerous to make (Hamas militants nicknamed TATP "the Mother of Satan" because of its volatility and propensity to either severely burn or kill bomb-makers). TATP and other peroxide-based explosives such as HTMD have played a prominent role in several recent jihadist plots, including Richard Reid's December 2001 attempted shoe bombing, the July 7 and July 21, 2005, subway attacks in London, and the 2006 liquid bomb plot. According to the motion, Zazi (and his yet unnamed associates) purchased "unusually large" quantities of acetone and peroxide from beauty supply stores on several occasions in July, August and September. A search of Zazi's computer also showed that he had searched the Internet for information pertaining to acid and peroxide. The motion also states that Zazi checked into a hotel in the Aurora, Colo., area that had a stove in it on Aug. 28 and on Sept. 6-7. A forensic examination of the fan hood on the stove in the room where Zazi stayed tested positive for acetone — an indication that Zazi was attempting to cook TATP in the room. However, the motion also indicates that Zazi was not an experienced bomb maker and that he seems to have had problems finding the proper chemical mixture to manufacture effective TATP. This is not an uncommon problem for novice bomb makers, and we have seen attacks like the July 21, 2005, London attacks fizzle due to bad batches of TATP. The affidavit also noted that on Sept. 6-7, Zazi attempted to communicate with another individual several times to ask about the proper mixture of ingredients to make TATP, with each communication reportedly becoming increasingly urgent in tone. This urgency, and his travel to New York — where Zazi resided prior to his 2008 trip to the jihadist training camp — likely sparked a great deal of concern among the authorities who were watching him. The concern that Zazi had manufactured TATP in Colorado and transported it to New York in his rental car may explain why authorities took the risky step of snatching and searching the car — one of the events that tipped him off to the investigation prior to his arrest. If the facts set out in the motion are true, it would appear that the plot Zazi was involved in was quite serious, and was fairly well along in the planning stages. Because TATP has a short shelf life before it begins to decompose, it is manufactured shortly before it is to be used. Therefore, the target selection, pre-operational surveillance and operational planning were all most likely completed before Zazi began brewing the explosive, which likely explains his panicked calls on Sept. 6-7. It is not clear at this point who conducted the target selection, surveillance and planning for the attack. The government has not yet released a list of targets, but STRATFOR sources have indicated that the plot was directed against the New York subway system, a perennial target for terror plots. The details released so far show that this case seems to have many parallels to past plots. In addition to the parallels to the London July 7 attacks — as far as the use of TATP, the potential targeting of subways using suicide bombs and the fact that Zazi's role and his travel to Pakistan is somewhat reminiscent of July 7 plot leader Mohammed Siddique Khan — the use of a hotel to make improvised explosive mixtures is similar to the actions of Ahmed Ressam during the millennium bomb plot. Also, the travel from Colorado to New York in order to attack the subway system is similar to the case involving Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, who traveled from Bellingham, Wash., to New York where he was involved in a plot to bomb the New York subway system. It appears that at least some of Zazi's alleged conspirators remain at large and U.S. authorities will be seeking to round them up and charge them (especially in light of the reports that authorities allegedly recovered 14 new black backpacks during a search of an apartment in New York and that some of Zazi's associates had also purchased acetone and peroxide.) According to information in the detention motion, it appears that Zazi was one of a group of men who traveled to Pakistan to attend the jihadist training camp. This travel may be what brought him to the attention of the authorities. The Zazi case highlights several interesting trends that STRATFOR has been following for several years, such as the jihadists' persistence in their efforts to hit the United States, their use of grassroots jihadists rather than professional terrorist operatives and the ability of Western intelligence to penetrate grassroots cells plotting such attacks. We will continue to carefully monitor this case because more interesting details about the plot, and how it was discovered and thwarted, are certain to surface in the coming weeks.

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