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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The lone suspect on trial in what U.S. prosecutors call an al Qaeda-inspired plot to attack the New York City subway system fully intended to put his jihadist training to work by carrying out a suicide bombing, a jury was told on Monday.
Adis Medunjanin, 28, a U.S. citizen born in Bosnia, is on trial in Brooklyn federal court for what prosecutors say was a conspiracy between him and two close friends from high school in the New York City borough of Queens to conduct attacks in 2009 at the behest of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.
Medunjanin has denied the charges, and his defense lawyer says he backed out of the plot with his two Afghan-born former classmates in a case Attorney General Eric Holder called one of the most serious threats to U.S. security since the September 11 attacks of 2001.
The former classmates are testifying against Medunjanin as part of deal with prosecutors in which they pleaded guilty to the plot.
"Adis agreed to be one of the suicide bombers," said Zarein Ahmedzay, 27, who was called as the first prosecution witness.
Medunjanin had "no hesitation" and "was committed" to the plan, Ahmedzay said. Ahmedzay's testimony was set to continue on Tuesday along with the third accused member of the plot, Najibullah Zazi, 27, who also pleaded guilty.
The three formed a "covenant" to travel to Afghanistan to seek anti-U.S. training and join the Taliban's fight against U.S. troops, Ahmedzay testified.
But they never made it to Afghanistan, and instead met al Qaeda operatives who took them to a training compound in Waziristan, a mountainous region in northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, Ahmedzay said.
There they received weapons training and agreed to change their mission to a suicide attack on U.S. soil at the behest of their al Qaeda mentors, Ahmedzay said. They discussed potential targets in New York City, including Times Square and Penn Station, and eventually settled on a suicide attack on New York City's subway system during rush hour in early September 2009.
But Medunjanin backed out of the plot, his defense lawyer Robert Gottlieb, countered in opening arguments.
He was a "serious, studious and sincere" young man who balked at joining his friends in the "martyrdom operations," Gottlieb said.
"Adis Medunjanin made his decision, and he decided not to be a terrorist, not to be a suicide bomber," Gottlieb said.
Federal prosecutors accuse the three of jihad, a term which also has a peaceful meaning in Islam but which U.S. authorities use as shorthand for violent Islamist activity.
Zazi was arrested in September 2009 after driving into New York City with a detonator and materials to build an explosive device.
Medunjanin was arrested in early 2010 after attempting to crash his car into another vehicle in what prosecutors have described as a failed suicide attempt. Prosecutors have presented recordings of 911 emergency calls in which they say Medunjanin identified himself, made jihadist statements, and declared "We love death" immediately before the crash. At the time he was under surveillance by federal agents.
Gottlieb said the statements were an expression of desperation from a man whose home had just been raided by federal agents and who was overwhelmed with the possibility of being branded a Muslim terrorist.
If convicted, Medunjanin faces up to life in prison. Zazi and Ahmedzay have yet to be sentenced.
The trial before U.S. District Judge John Gleeson is expected to last approximately three weeks.
The case is U.S. v. Medunjanin, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, no. 10-19.
Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom