New York City Terror Plot and the Post-9/11 Catch-22

Last week's raids on a number of apartments in New York City and the subsequent questioning of an Afghan immigrant serve once again to remind us that our nation is at war -- and that the war is not limited to the battlefields abroad. The threat of terror attacks against targets in the homeland remains high.

The case raises important questions about how domestic terrorism should be fought. Should law enforcement wait until a threat becomes “imminent” before acting? If not, then at what point should law enforcement intervene given that much of a plot’s details may remain unknown?

It also raises important questions about just how much faith law enforcement can place in the cooperation of some Muslim clerics in terrorism-related cases.

If press accounts can be trusted, here’s what we know about the case. FBI agents had been monitoring the movements of Najibullah Zazi, the son of Afghan immigrants living in Colorado, for over a year. He had traveled back and forth to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he is alleged to have met with al-Qaeda agents. Depending on the press you read, Zazi has now either confirmed that he has “ties” to al-Qaeda or has directly denied these “ties.”

Zazi lives with his parents in suburban Aurora, Colorado, and works as a shuttle driver at the Denver airport. Zazi also had close ties with a group of Afghan and Pakistani immigrants in New York City, where he worked for a time as a coffee cart vendor. This circle of friends may have sympathies with Islamic extremists.

Zazi had driven to New York with a rented car to visit these friends when the raids occurred. On his way into the city, Zazi was stopped by the police. His lawyer says the police told Zazi that it was a “routine drug inspection.” But two days later Zazi’s car was towed and searched, and the computer he had left in it was “cloned” by the FBI.

Both the “routine” stop and towing of the car now appear to have been excuses for the FBI to fill in the gaps on just what Zazi was up to.

It’s not clear what exactly triggered the raids in the wee hours of the morning of September 14. It may have been the fact that several of Zazi’s New York circle of friends had attempted (and failed) to rent a large truck on the very day before Zazi was scheduled to arrive. (Rented trucks were used in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.)

Or it may have been the fact that the computer “cloned” by the FBI contained plans for making homemade bombs similar to the ones used in the 2005 London tube terrorist attacks. Or that the FBI had intercepted cryptic text messages between Zazi and his NYC friends saying “the wedding cake was ready” -- a code similar to the ones used in previous bombings, meaning the preparations for the attack were near completion.

Whatever the proximate reason for acting when they did, members of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force raided several residences in the heavily immigrant Flushing neighborhood of Queens on that night. Agents searched these premises looking for bomb-making materials and then began casing the entire neighborhood asking residents for information about the suspect and his associates. No bomb-making materials were uncovered, but new backpacks similar to those used in the London bombings were found.

Up to 12 people have been questioned in conjunction with the case, none of whom have been formally placed under arrest. In fact, Zazi was allowed to return to Colorado, where he has been meeting with the FBI since Wednesday. At least one report claims that Zazi has changed his story and has now admitted that he met with al-Qaeda agents.