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.

Zazi consented to the search and a bomb-sniffing dog was brought in to check the car, but nothing was found. During his trial testimony against his accomplice, Zazi indicated that the trunk, where his suitcase containing the TATP was located, was not searched. That might be because a thorough search could not be conducted because authorities didn’t have a search warrant yet.

Zazi also testified that at this point it “looked like they were waiting for me.”

So: after repeated stops by local law enforcement and a search of his car as he entered New York, the FBI allowed Najibullah Zazi to enter New York City with explosives sufficient to kill dozens, if not hundreds.

These traffic stops at the request of the FBI also tipped Zazi off. After the “random” drug search, Zazi called his accomplice Zarein Ahmedzay and drove to his house in Queens. Immediately, Zazi told Ahmedzay about the traffic stops and the drug search.

They immediately set off for a nearby mosque, but Zazi spotted the FBI tail team. They made two stops to confirm they were being followed, and once they did, they concluded that the plot was over. Once they arrived at the mosque, Zazi typed a text message on his phone: “Police is after me; we are done.” He showed it to their conspirator Medunjanin, who met the pair at the mosque. Zazi and Ahmedzay disposed of the bomb materials in the mosque’s garbage and flushed the explosives down the toilet. That evening, Zazi booked a flight back to Colorado for the following day.

So according to Zazi's trial testimony, by the end of the day on September 10 they had already abandoned their terror plot plans and disposed of the explosives.

The FBI had provided pictures to the NYPD of the three men. Dutifully, the NYPD went to one of their Muslim community outreach partners, Abu Bakr mosque imam Ahmad Wais Afzali, to ask about the men. Afzali called Zazi’s father, and then Zazi himself, on September 11 -- the day after Zazi and Ahmedzay confirmed the FBI’s surveillance -- to let the terror suspect know he was being investigated and that his phone was tapped. In fact, the FBI was listening into the conversation.

According to the evidence submitted by federal prosecutors during Medunjanin’s trial, Zazi received a phone call from Afzali’s funeral home cell phone at 11:34 a.m. on September 11. There were 13 other contacts between Zazi and Afzali that day, and another three between Ahmedzay and Afzali.

But at the time of the first phone call by Afzali, Zazi was sitting in an internet café in Queens, killing time as he waited for his flight back to Colorado later that day. If the repeated traffic stops, “random” drug search, and obvious FBI tail team had not tipped off Zazi by the time of Afzali’s phone call, then he undoubtedly would have grown suspicious when he walked out of the internet café and found that his rental car had been towed away.

The FBI had pulled the car looking for evidence. Zazi’s laptop was in the car and the FBI made a mirror image of the hard drive, which contained scanned copies of Zazi's handwritten bomb-making notes. Zazi’s father called the following day (September 12) to let his son know that the car had been found at a local police station. Zazi was then allowed to fly back to Colorado, and it was more than a week until he was arrested.

Some criticism of this whole episode could be directed at the NYPD for trusting imam Afzali in the first place, but the FBI is in absolutely no position to throw stones considering the extensive history of failure by the bureau in their Muslim outreach.

The evidence and testimony in the recently concluded trial exonerate the NYPD from the slanders of the anonymous FBI sources who tried to pin the botched investigation on the NYPD’s contact with Afzali. By Zazi’s own testimony, he was spooked by the traffic stops and drug search conducted on the FBI’s behalf.

If anyone needs to explain how the investigation into Najibullah Zazi and his accomplices was nearly botched and how Zazi was allowed to drive into New York City with a suitcase full explosives just minutes after his car had been searched, it is clearly the FBI.