How FBI Botched Zazi Arrest, but Blamed NYPD

The arrest of Najibullah Zazi on September 19, 2009, came more than a week after news broke about his involvement in a suicide bomber plot targeting New York City subways -- one of the most advanced terror threats to the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks. But within days, finger pointing between law enforcement agencies working on the case exploded throughout popular media. Most of the accusations came from anonymous FBI officials, who accused the NYPD of botching the case and forcing the bureau to prematurely reel in the terror suspect.

According to the anonymous FBI sources talking to the New York Times and Time (and repeated more recently by the Denver Post), the NYPD botched the case by talking to a Queens-area imam and showing him pictures of the terror suspects that included a photo of Zazi. The FBI then caught the imam phoning Zazi’s father and then Zazi himself to let them know of the terror investigation, which forced the FBI’s hand.

But testimony by Zazi himself in the trial of his accomplice Adis Medunjanin challenges and contradicts the accusations by the anonymous FBI officials. The testimony also raises serious questions about how the FBI conducted the investigation and possibly endangered lives in New York City.

Mitchell Silber, head of the NYPD’s intelligence analysis, noted the contrast between the recent testimony and the version given by the anonymous FBI sources in his editorial published late last Friday in the Wall Street Journal.

On September 9, 2009, Zazi set off in a rental car for New York from Aurora, Colorado, where he had used easily obtained chemicals to make the explosive TATP. The TATP was stored in a white jar wrapped in plastic and placed in Zazi’s suitcase beneath his clothes. The suitcase was located in the trunk of Zazi's rental car.

FBI agents watched Zazi leave, and began tailing him. The FBI contacted the Colorado State Patrol and asked for assistance in stopping Zazi to ascertain where he was going. He was subsequently stopped for speeding by State Patrol Sgt. Gerald Lamb. Zazi told Lamb that he was going back to New York to run his coffee window in Queens. This stop was the first indication to Zazi that something was amiss.

According to court testimony, the FBI had difficulty keeping up with the suspect since he was driving fast and rarely stopped. A team from the FBI Denver office had to fly ahead to St. Louis to set up for the ongoing tail team. Zazi was later ticketed for speeding in Kentucky.

As Zazi entered New York City on September 10, he was stopped in a prearranged “random” drug checkpoint on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge by the Port Authority of NY and NJ. This occurred at the request of the FBI.

NPR counterterrorism reporter Dina Temple-Raston falsely attributed the stop to the NYPD in an interview segment titled “Facts and Fiction About Alleged Zazi Plot.” Her sources allegedly said the drug search was a “cowboy maneuver” by the NYPD. In fact, the search was done by the Port Authority, not the NYPD. It also took place on the New Jersey side of the bridge, where the NYPD has no jurisdiction. The search was conducted with the full knowledge and authorization of the FBI.