NEW YORK (Reuters) - A suspected bomb plot under investigation in New York and Denver has the ingredients of a worst case scenario for U.S. security, experts say: an al Qaeda link, overseas training and free movement within U.S. borders.
Colorado airport shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi, who U.S. authorities say admitted to taking a bomb-making course at an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, is at the center of what they say could be a plot to blow up subways or other targets.
Zazi has maintained his innocence, as has his father and a New York City imam who have also been arrested. So far authorities have only charged the three Afghan-born men with lying to investigators, which carries an eight-year maximum sentence, and not a more serious terrorism-related charge.
Whether or not the allegations outlined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in court papers are true, the picture they paint would make this case among the most serious within U.S. borders since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Here’s a guy who apparently was trained in Pakistan, had knowledge of bomb-making and was trying to assemble a team. That’s our worst nightmare, quite frankly,” said Michael Sheehan, a former counterterrorism chief for New York police and now a private consultant.
The case also underscores how, after the September 11 attacks and the transit bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, U.S. law enforcement has been more aggressive in making arrests even as rights groups accuse them of being overly zealous.
Zazi, 24, was arrested with his father in Colorado on Saturday while the imam, a one-time police informant named Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, was arrested in New York. All three have been living in the United States for years.
The FBI says it found a laptop in Zazi’s rented car with instructions on how to make, handle and detonate explosives.
When police on September 14 searched an apartment in the New York City borough of Queens that Zazi had visited, they told local media they confiscated cell phones and at least nine empty backpacks. The Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people involved backpacks stuffed with explosives that were detonated via cell phones.
A spokesman for Zazi’s lawyer was not available to comment.
PAKISTAN ANGLE RAISES CONCERN
Experts say that, if prosecutors can prove it, Zazi’s visit to an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan makes this case more serious than previous cases built around paid informants and suspects who had more fervor than training.
“The people who have been successful in these attacks generally have been to camps, where they’ve been trained, where they’ve been organized,” Sheehan said.
The FBI says Zazi in August 2008 visited Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier Province, where al Qaeda operates training camps. Concerns about al Qaeda activity in Pakistan is a factor in the debate whether to send more U.S. troops into neighboring Afghanistan.
Zazi had been under surveillance for some time, probably months, when the investigation was made public by the September 14 raids in Queens. Federal authorities say they acted after Afzali, the imam and police informant, tipped off Zazi he was being watched.
That warning may have forced investigators to pounce earlier than they would have liked, forfeiting the opportunity to gather more evidence.
“They have moved early here,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
“The trade-off is they are erring on the side of concern for the safety of people who might be hurt or killed, if this had materialized. But it might mean that they can’t convict or may not have a strong case,” he said.
The gathering of world leaders in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly may have prompted authorities, said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University.
That this is being looked at as an al Qaeda-linked plot has also put it in a different class of threats, Cole said. “There have been very few al Qaeda-connected terrorist plots in the United States that have come to light. And so in that respect, this is different from most of the others.”
Civil rights lawyers worry that aggressive tactics and early arrests could trap innocent people.
Ron Kuby, a lawyer for Afzali, said his client had sought to assist the FBI. He said it was implausible Afzali would lie about conversations he knew were being monitored.
“As a New Yorker I am acutely sensitive to the idea that we want the government to act quickly rather than waiting for something terrible to happen,” Kuby said, but “the government has made mistakes and they have a made a mistake here.”
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Todd Eastham
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