NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two co-defendants of a man who has admitted to planning a suicide bombing of the New York City subways with al Qaeda training pleaded not guilty on Thursday to conspiring in the plot.
The upgraded charges were filed after Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi surprisingly pleaded guilty on Monday to plotting the attack.
Zazi, 25, and two of his former high school classmates from the New York City borough of Queens are accused of traveling to Pakistan together in 2008 when they were recruited by al Qaeda and trained in bomb-making.
Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay were charged in federal court in Brooklyn with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and receiving al Qaeda training. They pleaded not guilty through their defense lawyers.
The two are also charged with providing material support to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network including money, training, communications equipment and personnel. Ahmedzay is also accused of making false statements to the FBI.
Upon pleading guilty, Zazi admitted he planned to blow himself up on the subway after receiving bomb-making instruction from al Qaeda. He is now cooperating with investigators.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called the plot one of the most serious security threats to the United States since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and prosecutors said in court there could be more defendants overseas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Knox said al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan directed the defendants to carry out an attack similar to the 2005 London transit bombings that killed more than 50 people.
Defense lawyers for Medunjanin and Ahmedzay complained prosecutors and government officials were making unfair and sensational accusations against their clients while trying to prevent defense lawyers from speaking publicly about the case.
Medunjanin, of Bosnian origin, and Ahmedzay, of Afghan origin, previously had been charged with lesser offenses of interfering with the Zazi investigation.
A superseding indictment unsealed on Thursday effectively equated the charges against them with those against Zazi. All three face life in prison if convicted.
Zazi’s father and a New York City imam also face lesser charges in connection with the case.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta, editing by Alan Elsner and Ellen Wulfhorst