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An Enemy Within: The Making of Najibullah Zazi

16 minute read
David Von Drehle and Bobby Ghosh

You’d think Najibullah Zazi would stand out on the high, dry plains southeast of Denver, where the earth is as flat as a starched shirt and mere wrinkles count as topography. But if heartland suburbs were ever enclaves of uniformity, that day is long gone. Aurora, Colo., is a city of people from somewhere else, a low-slung municipality of 315,000 that includes extremes of both poverty and prosperity. Aurora is vast–nearly 154 sq. mi. (400 sq km)–and dense, with a high concentration of multifamily housing units, apartment buildings, townhouses and condominiums. Those homes contain a patchwork of races, ethnicities and tribes: Aurora is 23% Hispanic; 13% black; 15% Asian, Native American and other. Nearly 100 languages are spoken by students in the Aurora public schools. It is, in short, an excellent place for a young man with a laptop and a recipe for bombs to hide in plain sight.

Even while allegedly buying gallons of chemicals at beauty-supply shops and renting a cheap hotel suite to cook them in, Zazi might have remained anonymous long enough to strike and kill, except that U.S. Homeland Security is a sharper instrument than it was in the summer of 2001. The dysfunctional system that failed to connect the dots before 9/11 managed, eight years later, to spot and disrupt a plot in progress. Zazi has denied charges he conspired to bomb targets in the U.S., but government officials are confident they’ve got their man. Authorities took notice when Zazi traveled last year to Pakistan, while his unsavory associations there–the FBI charges that Zazi attended terrorist training camps–heightened their interest. The government caught Zazi about a month ago talking about chemicals on his cell phone. From then on, virtually the entire FBI Denver field office was on his trail.

That’s the good news. Perhaps the fact that he was caught in time–and the same week that two other alleged bombing attempts were foiled in Middle America–tells us that post-9/11 security measures, many of them highly controversial, are working. But there is bad news too. Zazi’s alleged project, from the training camp in Pakistan to his bomb recipe and backpack delivery system, bears the marks not of some fluky local scheme of the kind that the feds have sniffed out in the past but of a plausible al-Qaeda operation. Nor does Zazi appear to be a lone sympathizer or a copycat egged on by an FBI informant. He apparently had marching orders, accomplices and a quiet determination to deliver a stunning blow. In all these respects, Zazi resembles the al-Qaeda bombers who attacked the London subway in 2005. Indeed, if the charges against him prove true, Zazi was the recruit al-Qaeda had long sought: entirely legal, completely acculturated, seemingly innocuous. In his utter ordinariness, he was a terror master’s dream. As such, Zazi suggests that the network of Osama bin Laden, weakened though it might be, can still project violence into the U.S.

Roots of Rebellion

Zazi’s story begins 24 years ago, in the midst of a war in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, a violent region of jagged mountains, ominous caves and boulder-strewn ravines. The war pitted U.S.-backed Islamic fundamentalists against troops of the Soviet occupation. Little is known of Zazi’s childhood, but around the time he was born, there was a newcomer in Paktia: a zealous Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. He had come to see jihad in action, and he was thrilled and inspired by the experience of combat. Bin Laden built mosques and schools on both sides of the border with Pakistan, but he was a warrior at heart. So he decided to attract his own army and construct a fortress for the jihad. He chose a site near the tribal village of Jaji. Using bulldozers and explosives, bin Laden connected some 500 mountain caves into a network of underground rooms. He called the place al-Masada, or the Lion’s Den–and he was the lion. There, in the spring of 1987, the mujahedin repelled attacks by élite Soviet troops backed by bomber jets and pro-Soviet Afghan fighters. Victory in the Battle of Jaji, during which bin Laden may have been wounded, became the cradle of Osama’s myth. A generation later, halfway around the world, we are still living with the consequences.

It’s easy to imagine that a little boy growing up in Paktia province might have heard heroic tales of the Battle of Jaji and its hero, bin Laden. When Zazi was about 7 years old, his father moved the family across the border into Pakistan, near Peshawar, another zone of bin Laden influence and a hotbed of jihadist activity.

The father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, eventually immigrated to New York City, where he found work as a taxi driver, saving his money until he had enough to bring his wife and children to the U.S. (The older Zazi became a naturalized U.S. citizen.) Once in New York City, Najibullah proved to be an indifferent student at Flushing High School in Queens, more interested in basketball than in books, and he was a silent watcher at the Hazrat-i-Abubakr Sadiq mosque. His imam in those days, Mohammed Sherzad, remembers Zazi’s visits to the white two-story building topped with a blue dome and minaret: “Every Saturday and Sunday, I had a class for the younger generation. Some students would ask me questions, but Najibullah never asked–he was listening.”

When Zazi was 16, bin Laden’s army delivered a stunning attack on New York City and Washington. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers drove a wedge into the community of Afghan immigrants in Queens, Sherzad recalls, and the mosque was torn apart over the imam’s criticism of the Taliban government that shielded bin Laden in Afghanistan. The Zazi family sided against Sherzad, he recalls, and afterward Zazi refused to meet the imam’s gaze when they passed each other on the street. Still, an acquaintance told the New York Times that Zazi was baffled by the suicide hijackers. “I don’t know how people could do things like this,” Zazi reportedly said of the attacks. “I’d never do anything like that.”

There are hints that the young man began to change after 9/11. He dropped out of school and took his place working at a family coffee cart near Wall Street, not far from ground zero. Though gregarious with customers, Zazi grew stern with his friends, chastising them for their interest in popular music and expressing other fundamentalist views. On certain occasions, he replaced his Western clothing with a traditional tunic, and he let his whiskers grow. “Najib is completely different,” a neighborhood man told Sherzad a few years ago. “He looks like a Taliban. He has a big beard. He’s talking different.”

And listening differently too. A friend from that period tells TIME that Zazi became enchanted with the controversial Indian Muslim televangelist Dr. Zakir Naik, who preaches a wild mix of harsh Islamic rhetoric and unorthodox Muslim theology. His videos reach a global audience online. On the topic of jihad and terrorism, Naik was far from the most incendiary voice, but he managed in his own way to make clear the choice between bin Laden and Uncle Sam. “If [bin Laden] is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him,” the former medical doctor says in one YouTube clip. “If he is terrorizing America–the terrorist, biggest terrorist–I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist.” In an interview with TIME after Zazi’s arrest, Naik insisted, “I have always condemned terrorism, because according to the glorious Koran, if you kill one innocent person, then you have killed the whole of humanity.”

Naik’s preaching may have given Zazi a mirror for his own confused feelings as he struggled to start a family and make ends meet. The streets of America weren’t paved with gold for Zazi. He fell deeply into debt. Starting around 2006, when he traveled to Pakistan to marry a 19-year-old cousin, Zazi began dividing his time between New York City and the increasingly radical milieu of Hayatabad, a relatively prosperous city near Peshawar where bin Laden’s influence was deeply felt. Visits in 2006 and 2007 produced two children, and he hoped to bring his family to the U.S. someday. It was a dim hope, as Zazi spiraled toward bankruptcy.

Then, in 2008, a third trip generated an entirely different result. According to court documents filed by the FBI, Zazi and an unspecified number of companions flew on Aug. 28 to Peshawar via Geneva and Doha. According to knowledgeable sources, something about this trip inspired U.S. officials to ask Pakistani authorities to keep an eye on Zazi, and what they saw was unsettling. “There was reason to believe that Zazi met with terrorists in Pakistan,” a U.S. counterterrorism official tells TIME. The FBI confirms this, saying that since his arrest, Zazi has admitted to attending an al-Qaeda training camp, where he received instruction in weapons and explosives. “The nature of terrorist-training camps in Pakistan varies considerably,” the counterterrorism official explains. “Some are fixed locations, while others are mobile. Some have better infrastructure and support than others. But they all have one thing in common–they’re dangerous and are thus of significant concern to us and our allies.”

Why did Zazi take this step? “It’s sometimes difficult to determine exactly at what point it was that somebody becomes radicalized and then decides to become a terrorist,” a senior Obama Administration official tells TIME. “Usually it’s an evolutionary process.” And what does it mean to have an Afghan immigrant take up al-Qaeda’s cause? The worst-case scenario, according to experts, is that Zazi may represent an effort by the Taliban to expand its attacks on U.S. interests. Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, believes the Taliban’s worldview has changed since the U.S.-led invasion ousted it from power in late 2001. “Many of the leaders now see themselves as part of the global jihad,” says Grenier, who heads the consulting firm ERG Partners. “Lots of Afghans see the U.S. presence as an occupation, and I can easily see how some of them would be motivated to strike at the U.S. wherever they can.” If Grenier is right and the Taliban has joined al-Qaeda in taking the fight beyond central Asia, Western authorities will need to widen the scope of their operations at home and abroad. “If he’s Taliban, then it greatly expands the universe of people you want to put under surveillance,” says Bill Rosenau, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp.

This much is clear: when Zazi returned to the U.S. in January of this year, law-enforcement agencies began keeping track of him.

The Manhunt

Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) is a notoriously unstable chemical compound known among Palestinian militants as umm shaitan, or the mother of Satan. Many would-be bombmakers have suffered severe burns while trying to mix the explosive in makeshift laboratories. For terrorist groups, however, the risks of TATP are outweighed by the advantages. The white, sugarlike powder is lightweight and nearly odorless (the better to evade bomb-sniffing dogs) and contains no nitrogen (foiling scanners that detect nitrogenous bombs). Its basic ingredients–acetone, hydrogen peroxide and acid–are readily available in beauty supplies and home-improvement products. Al-Qaeda operatives have been using the stuff for years.

After his bomb training in Pakistan, Zazi returned to New York City and then moved to Aurora, joining relatives in a house on East Ontario Drive, a few doors down from the chief of police. Why Aurora? The answer may be as simple as the low cost of living, the presence of a few relatives and the familiar terrain. The dry plains, thin air and faraway peaks bear no small resemblance to northern Pakistan and Paktia province. Zazi passed a background check to qualify as an airport-shuttle driver, and if he was notable for anything, it was his appetite for work. Other drivers describe his recruiting customers while standing in front of a white van bearing the company’s name–First ABC Transportation Inc. Unlike most drivers at ABC, who pulled eight- or nine-hour shifts, Zazi routinely put in 16-to-18-hour days, sometimes 80 hours a week. “He was a regular kind of guy, but he worked hard, and he wanted money,” says Hicham Semmaml, a Moroccan-born driver for ABC. When he was not working, Zazi occasionally attended the Colorado Muslim Society mosque, a moderate, friendly place light-years from the radical mosques built by bin Laden in Pakistan.

He moved to his own apartment on East Smoky Hill Road in a middle-class complex–the Vistas at Saddle Rock–which had a sparkling swimming pool and sat just beyond the city limits. Other residents noticed nothing about him except for his shuttle van. “We have people of all walks here,” says Mike Callender, a warehouse manager who lives in Building B. “And everyone gets along.” The perfect cover, in effect, was no cover at all. “We’ve known for a long time that al-Qaeda’s ideal recruit is someone who is legally in the U.S., has no criminal record,” says Rosenau, “someone completely invisible to authorities.”

Except by then, Zazi wasn’t. It’s unclear exactly when the authorities first listened in on Zazi’s phone calls, but sometime around late August, according to an intelligence official briefed on the case, he was heard talking “about chemical mixtures and other things.” At that point, the FBI shifted into high gear. Agents quickly picked up the trail and discovered, according to court documents and other sources, that Zazi and at least three associates were shopping for chemicals at beauty-supply stores in the Denver area using stolen credit cards. At the Beauty Supply Warehouse on East Sixth Avenue, a cornucopia of hair extensions, gels and wigs arrayed in a former skating rink, investigators found Zazi’s image on security tapes. He was pushing a cart full of hydrogen peroxide–based products down the aisle.

Agents also found evidence that Zazi had booked a room with a kitchenette at the Homestead Studio Suites a couple of miles south of the cosmetics store. When FBI technicians examined the room, they scraped traces of acetone, found in nail-polish remover, from the vent over the stove–indicating that someone had been cooking a bomb.

Intelligence sources are mum on exactly when the White House got involved, but a senior Administration official tells TIME that President Obama was briefed within 24 hours of the moment officials realized that Zazi could be a “red blinking light.” The unfolding investigation became a part of Obama’s daily briefing, and he returned to the subject in meetings with his intelligence and Homeland Security briefers. Agents were watching Zazi as he and his accomplices assembled the pieces of their alleged plot. Intelligence officials wanted to know who was running the show, the extent of the conspiracy, what the targets might be. But while Obama understood the need for more information, sources tell TIME, he quizzed advisers about their decision to initially hold off on arrests. “He would ask, understandably, ‘O.K., when are you going to arrest these guys? Are we confident that there is not something out there that may in fact go boom?'” the senior Administration official recalls.

On Sept. 6, Zazi returned to the kitchenette for another night over the stove, punctuated by frantic calls to still unknown accomplices seeking bombmaking advice. On Sept. 8, he rented a car, arranging to drop it off in New York City. At that point, the investigation “amped up” again, the intelligence official says, as agents asked themselves the obvious question, “What does he have in his car that he can’t put in an airplane? And who’s waiting on the other end?” The timing was alarming: the eighth anniversary of 9/11 loomed, and Obama was due in Manhattan days later. Still, the feds didn’t move to arrest Zazi: “We saw him as a possible plotter, a possible actor and a possible intelligence-collecting platform–someone who could lead us to a picture or a wider network.”

As the alleged bomber set out for New York City on Sept. 9, the FBI drew the New York Police Department into the investigation, and NYPD detectives showed pictures of Zazi and three suspected accomplices to an imam they had developed as a possible informant. Sure enough, the imam, Ahmad Afzali, recognized Zazi. But according to the FBI, he called Zazi and his father to tell them of the NYPD’s inquiries. And that was that. Zazi reached New York City just as the investigation was blowing up.

A flurry of search warrants and interrogations quickly followed. In Zazi’s rental car, agents allegedly found a laptop containing nine pages of bombmaking instructions. Zazi returned to Denver and volunteered for FBI interviews; when he stopped cooperating, he was arrested, initially for giving false statements. He was indicted on Sept. 24 for “conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.” Beyond that, it’s unclear where the evidence stands. Have bombs been found? Are the targets known? How close was Zazi to taking action? Will other suspects be charged? Officials aren’t saying. The picture “will get clearer as time goes on,” the intelligence official promises.

Needles in Haystacks

If Zazi represents a new kind of menace for the U.S., his arrest could be a double blessing, a counterterrorism official offers. Not only did it thwart a plot but it could also lead to a mother lode of information on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the state of the global jihad. But there are other, less reassuring lessons from Zazi and from the alleged lone-wolf wannabe terrorists snared by the FBI in Texas and Illinois. For starters: hatred is patient. The American struggle against Islamic terrorism, already one of the longest wars in the nation’s history, is not winding down. The longer it goes on, the more likely that the enemy will try to find new fronts closer to home. The hard debates over the use of force, surveillance tactics, interrogation methods and the rights of terrorists have many chapters yet to be written. Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer puts the idea slightly differently: “The lesson is that even if you don’t see yourself as one of those high-visibility targets, you can wake up to find a terrorist down the block.”

Out in Aurora, the feds may have found a needle in a haystack. But how many are in the process of disappearing right now? How much more should be done to find them? And how long will it be before one of them jabs us again?

Zazi in Aurora

To see more photos of Najibullah Zazi’s life in Colorado, go to time.com/zazi

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