CADMAN PLAZA EAST — The admitted mastermind of a foiled plot to bomb New York City subways testified yesterday that he wanted to fight jihad in Afghanistan after coming to believe that the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Najibullah Zazi told a federal jury that he and two friends made an oath about five years ago to leave their Queens neighborhood and “fight alongside the Taliban” after listening to the recorded sermons of radical Muslim clerics.
The men had decided that complaining about American intervention in Afghanistan wasn’t enough, he said.
“We decided we were not doing our jobs,” Zazi said. “We shouldn’t just point fingers.” At that time, he said, “My view was that 9/11, who was behind it, was America itself.”
Zazi, the former Colorado air shuttle driver who pleaded guilty to the bomb plot, was testifying for the first time since his capture in 2009 at the trial of Adis Medunjanin at federal court in Brooklyn.
Medunjanin, 27, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges.
Prosecutors allege that Zazi, Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to try to join the Taliban, but were instead recruited by al-Qaida operatives for a suicide mission on U.S. soil.
Ahmedzay, who has also pleaded guilty, testified on Monday that the three former high school classmates from Queens made a pact “to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahedeen against American forces.”
The decision set in motion what authorities have called one of the most frightening near-miss terror plots since the 9/11 attack — to strap on suicide bomb vests and detonate them inside Manhattan subways.
Zazi, who used beauty supplies to try and cook up explosives in a Colorado hotel room, was arrested shortly before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in a traffic stop on the George Washington Bridge after driving cross-country to New York City.
The men “were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them — men, women and children,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam said in opening statements. “These men came so close — within days of carrying out this attack.”
In his opening on Monday, defense attorney Robert Gottlieb accused the government of using “inflammatory rhetoric” about al-Qaida and terrorism to prevent jurors “from seeing the truth about this case.” The lawyer conceded his client had sought to support the Taliban’s struggle against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but denied he ever agreed to kill American civilians for al-Qaida.
“The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist,” he said. “Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb the New York City subways.”
Zazi and Ahmedzay have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify again Medunjanin in a bid for leniency.
Zazi could take the witness stand as early as Tuesday to testify about how, after relocating to the Denver area, he cooked up explosives and set out by car for New York City in September 2009 to carry out the attack. He was arrested after abandoning the plan and fleeing back to Colorado.
Ahmedzay was the government’s first witness on Monday, offering a detailed account of how he went from being a New York city cab driver who was ambivalent about the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to a would-be suicide bomber bent on avenging it.
The witness, a 27-year-old of Afghan descent, told jurors that Medunjanin encouraged him to follow a more radical form of Islam preached by U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He recalled listening to downloads of al-Awlaki’s anti-American screeds on his iPod, admitting, “I became very radical in my views.”
The men traveled in 2008 to Pakistan, where they met al-Qaida recruiters who told them they would be better suited for a suicide mission in the United States, the witness said. They were driven 10 hours away to a hideout protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades, AK-47s and other weapons, he said.
Ahmedzay also recounted a meeting there when the three agreed to become martyrs. Terror operatives encouraged the men to complete the mission before the end of George W. Bush’s second term as president, he said.