Zazi, Homegrown Terrorists, and the American Mosque

It’s been a busy month for the FBI. All 50 field offices have been involved in the ongoing investigating of what may turn out to be the biggest terrorist plot in the United States since 9/11. The man at its center is Najibullah Zazi, 24, an Afghan immigrant with a green card -- which makes him the FBI’s worst nightmare of a threat.

“I want to talk today about the changing shape of terrorism and, in particular, the threat of homegrown terrorism,” FBI Director Robert Mueller declared in an executive speech in June 2006. When the FBI calls someone a homegrown terrorist, they mean the person gets radicalized while living on American soil. The homegrown terrorist speaks English, is familiar with American customs, and is able to blend in. The privilege of U.S. travel documents allows the homegrown terrorist remarkable freedom of movement around the globe. Najibullah Zazi, for example, was able to travel from New York to Switzerland to Qatar to Pakistan, where he stayed for approximately five months before returning to the land he calls home.

“To detect homegrown terrorists,” Robert Mueller pointed out, is difficult. “They operate under the radar. And that makes their detection that much more difficult for all of us.”

Zazi, it appears, is such a case. “He was a nice guy,” one of his co-workers at Big Sky Shuttle in Lakewood, Colorado, told me on Friday afternoon (the co-worker chose not to be named). That’s where Zazi got a job working as an airport van driver beginning in February 2009. When I asked the man if he ever expected his co-worker to be at the center of an international terrorist plot, he replied: “No way, it’s so weird.”

At first even Najibullah Zazi himself tried to play the innocent card with the public through the press. "I'm just normal," he told the Denver Post’s Kirk Mitchell on September 15. “I pray five times a day. I observe Ramadan,” he said. Dressed in a button-down shirt and blue jeans, Zazi certainly looked the part of the “normal citizen" he claimed to be. That was before he, his father Mohammed, and a Brooklyn cleric with a penchant for expensive cars named Ahmad Wais Afzali were arrested on plotting a terrorist attack inside the United States using weapons of mass destruction.

That was before the material evidence came to light. There was the bomb-making instructions allegedly written in Zazi’s hand and the eerie video of him pushing a cart down a Denver beauty store aisle, purchasing enough potential bomb-making material to blow up several subway cars, stadium stands, or buses. Who can imagine what public venue the homegrown terrorists had in mind to destroy? When Zazi was asked by the beauty store clerk why he needed so much of a particular beauty supply product, the “normal citizen” responded: “I have a lot of girlfriends.” How American of him.