Three men arrested in terror investigation
AURORA, Colo. -- The arrest of a Colorado airport shuttle driver as part of a terrorism investigation reveals a murky plot that involved him receiving explosives training with al-Qaida in Pakistan and downloading instructions on his computer on how to build bombs.
But one thing is missing -- actual terrorism charges.
Najibullah Zazi was only charged with making false statements to the government, raising questions about the nature of the plot.
Zazi's defense team denied reports that he considered a plea deal related to terror charges, and Zazi's attorney, Arthur Folsom, has dismissed as rumor remarks by a senior U.S. intelligence official in Washington that Zazi played a crucial role in an intended terrorist attack.
"All of that hype, and it comes down to charging him with lying to the government. It sounds disproportionate to the hype," said Taj Ashaheed, Colorado Muslim Society spokesma.
Wendy Aiello, a spokeswoman for Zazi's defense team, didn't immediately return a call Sunday seeking comment.
Zazi, who lives in an apartment in the Denver suburb of Aurora, was arrested late Saturday after three days of questioning by the FBI. He was due to appear in federal court today.
Also arrested were Zazi's father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53, in Denver; and an associate, Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, of New York City, the Justice Department said. Both also were charged with making false statements to federal agents, which carries a penalty of eight years in prison.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has been tracking terrorist investigations around the country, said authorities could have made the arrests now because they feared too much information was getting out to the suspects. Additional charges could be filed later, he said.
In supporting documents filed with the court, investigators say Zazi admitted to FBI agents last week that in 2008 he received weapons and explosives training from al-Qaida in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan.
The investigation escalated after Zazi rented a car and drove from Denver to New York, crossing into Manhattan on Sept. 10. Zazi said he went to New York to resolve some issues with a coffee cart he owns in Manhattan, then flew home to Denver. The FBI searched Zazi's rental car and laptop during the New York trip and listened in on telephone conversations, according to the affidavits.
On his laptop, investigators found images of nine pages of handwritten notes containing formulas and instructions for making bombs, detonators and a fuse, the FBI said.
Zazi told the FBI he must have unintentionally downloaded the notes as part of a religious book he downloaded in August. Zazi said he immediately deleted the religious book within days of downloading it after realizing that its contents discussed jihad.
However, federal agents suspect Zazi e-mailed them between accounts that he owned in December 2008.
An arrest warrant affidavit says FBI agents intercepted a phone conversation around Sept. 11 in which Afzali, a legal permanent resident from Afghanistan, told Zazi that he had spoken with authorities.
"I was exposed to something yesterday from the authorities. And they came to ask me about your characters. They asked me about you guys," Afzali told Zazi, according to the affidavit.
However, Afzali allegedly lied to authorities about that conversation when federal agents asked him about it Thursday, according to the affidavit.
Ron Kuby, Afzali's attorney, said his client cooperated with authorities, giving them a DNA sample and letting them search his home after the FBI said it was "frantic for any information about Zazi."
Kuby said the government may have been forced to act after Zazi went to New York.
"Now they find themselves without a case and they're lashing out at people they shouldn't be lashing out at," Kuby said.
The department says Mohammed Zazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was interviewed last week by the FBI, lied when asked if he knew anyone by the name of Afzali and said he didn't. The FBI said it had wiretapped a conversation between Mohammed Zazi and Afzali during Najibullah Zazi's visit to New York.
The FBI searched Zazi's apartment and his uncle and aunt's home last week in suburban Denver. Authorities have not said what they found.
On Monday, FBI agents and police officers with search warrants seeking bomb materials searched three apartments and questioned residents in the Queens neighborhood where Zazi stayed.
Zazi was born in Afghanistan in 1985, moved to Pakistan at age 7 and emigrated to the United States in 1999. He returned to Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 to visit his wife, according to Folsom.
At the Masjid Hazrat Abu Bakr in Queens, Zakir Khan said he had seen Zazi praying at the mosque recently, after not seeing him there for about a year. Zazi told him he was back in the city to get his coffee truck and take it back to Colorado. Zazi spoke to Khan about his hopes of one day opening a limo business.
The New York Daily News reported Saturday that investigators spent several hours earlier this week at a U-Haul in Queens, where some men under scrutiny in the case tried to rent a large truck.
A manager at the rental lot, Robert Larson, told the newspaper the men went away empty handed because they didn't have a valid credit card. The paper reported that U-Haul workers identified one of the people involved in the rental attempt as Naiz Khan, an Afghan immigrant in Queens who knew Zazi and has been questioned by the FBI in connection with the case.
"I've never been to that U-Haul," he said Saturday. Asked what he thought about the scrutiny of Zazi, Khan said he wasn't sure.
"My opinion is, I don't know him. I know him from a mosque, that's all. He's my friend."
Associated Press Writers Ivan Moreno in Denver, Samantha Gross, Jennifer Peltz and Larry Neumeister in New York City contributed to this report.