U.S.: Thwarting a Potential Attack

4 MINS READSep 22, 2009 | 15:26 GMT
Three defendants charged with lying to federal agents conducting a foreign and domestic terrorism investigation appeared in federal courts Sept. 21 in Denver and Brooklyn after they were arrested Sept. 19. It appears that this case was an attempt by the federal government to disrupt an attack rather than to prosecute the suspects under the harshest of possible penalties.
Najibullah Zazi, Mohammed Wali Zazi (Najibullah's father) and Imam Ahmad Wais Afzali — all of Afghan descent — appeared in federal courts Sept. 21 after being arrested Sept.19. Federal agents had been investigating the trio for several weeks after receiving intelligence indicating the three men (and possibly others) were involved in a plot that would have targeted the New York subway system. Federal authorities also issued renewed warnings to local law enforcement Sept. 21 of attacks against mass transit. There have been a number of attacks against railways overseas and several plots directed against New York's subway system, which STRATFOR has been anticipating for several years. Detonating even a small explosive on a train car — a contained area with a high density of people — could lead to numerous fatalities, demonstrated by the 2004 Madrid and 2007 Mumbai attacks. Najibullah Zazi, a second-generation U.S. citizen, had traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, on Aug. 28, 2008 (he claimed to be visiting his wife) and returned to New York four and a half months later in January 2009. Then, on Sept. 9, Zazi departed Aurora, Colorado, and drove approximately 27 hours to New York while being followed by the FBI. Meanwhile, on Sep. 10, NYPD interviewed Afzali, who had been utilized as a source in the past, and questioned him on Najibullah and Mohammed Wali Zazi. (NYPD sources have been instrumental in infiltrating and breaking up a number of plots.) On Sept. 11, federal agents recorded a 20-minute conversation between Najibullah Zazi, Afzali and Mohammed Wali Zazi, and then seized Najibullah's laptop computer. The phone conversations consisted of Afzali warning Najibullah Zazi that authorities had interviewed him and said that they had asked questions about Zazi. The laptop computer that was seized contained electronic images of handwritten notes on how to manufacture, handle and initiate explosive charges, detonators and "components of a fusing system." According to a criminal complaint in the case, Zazi admitted to investigators that he had received training from al Qaeda members in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of northwest Pakistan, a known hotbed of jihadist activity. This would match up with the modus operandi of past militant ringleaders, such as Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the July 7, 2005, London bombings, who was a second-generation British citizen (and thus better able to blend into his surroundings) and who also received training in Pakistan. It appears that Zazi took notes during his bomb-making training classes and in an effort to prevent their discovery upon returning to the United States, e-mailed them to himself using another Web mail account set up under a different name. During interviews by the FBI in Denver late last week, Mohammad Wali Zazi denied having ever spoken to or knowing Afzali (disproved by the conversation recorded Sept. 11). Afzali denied having informed the Zazis that authorities had interviewed him (also disproved by the conversation), and Najibullah Zazi denied that the scanned notes on bomb-making belonged to him. However, a handwriting analysis later determined that Najibullah Zazi most likely wrote the notes. Charging the three for lying to federal investigators, however, is unlikely to result in stiff sentences without material evidence demonstrating that the three selected and surveilled targets, collected bomb-making materials or raised money for conducting an attack. A conviction could result in very little jail time (if any), especially if the men do not have a criminal background — and there is no indication that any of them do. Convicting the three was not the main priority in this case though. Rather than investigating the case further and potentially accumulating more evidence that could be used to increase the punishment, authorities used the bare minimum of offenses to arrest and prosecute the group. This was clearly a case of the disruption approach to counterterrorism the U.S. government has adopted following the 9/11 attacks. With the U.N. General Assembly coming up at the end of the month, which will see some 122 world leaders (including U.S. President Barack Obama) visit New York over the coming weeks, the decision was made to stop the plot in its tracks rather than risk losing the alleged conspirators. It does not necessarily require imprisonment to break up a plot. Simply detaining the group and prosecuting them will likely disrupt the plot enough to halt or delay any pending operations — even if there are others involved. In such a high-risk environment, during such a sensitive time as the U.N. General Assembly, it is not surprising that the FBI arrested the group when it did, despite not having the most blockbuster of cases against the suspects.

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