NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former al Qaeda recruit who plotted to bomb New York City’s subway system was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Thursday, nearly a decade after he pleaded guilty and became one of the U.S. government’s most valuable counterterrorism informants.
Najibullah Zazi, 33, had faced up to a life term, but U.S. prosecutors in Brooklyn asked U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie to credit him for his “extraordinary” cooperation since he pleaded guilty in February 2010 to numerous terrorism crimes.
His lawyer, William Stampur, told reporters he expects Zazi will be released soon, after having already spent almost 10 years in custody.
“I think justice has been served,” Stampur said.
Zazi was particularly valuable to investigators given his familiarity with al Qaeda operations, after he traveled to Pakistan, met with senior al Qaeda members and underwent weapons and explosives training.
The government has not publicly revealed the extent of Zazi’s assistance, saying that could imperil ongoing investigations.
But prosecutors noted that he helped implicate two co-conspirators in the subway plot, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay. They also said information Zazi provided helped convict three other individuals in terrorism cases.
“Over the past eight years, Zazi has provided extraordinary cooperation, meeting with the government more than 100 times,” government lawyers wrote in court filings. “Zazi’s assistance came in the face of substantial potential danger to himself and his family.”
Zazi, who was born in Afghanistan, moved as a teenager to New York City, where he dropped out of high school and became a street vendor.
He became radicalized after Medunjanin, a friend, gave him audio tapes of lectures by the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, according to prosecutors. He, Medunjanin and Ahmedzay traveled to Pakistan, intending to join al Qaeda in fighting U.S troops in Afghanistan.
Instead, al Qaeda officials urged them to return to the United States to carry out a suicide bombing.
The three men agreed to bomb the subway during rush hour, and Zazi began assembling explosive materials. He was arrested in 2009, however, after federal investigators were tipped off that he had ties to militants.
Medunjanin was convicted at trial, in large part thanks to Zazi’s testimony, and was sentenced to life in prison. The third co-conspirator, Ahmedzay, was sentenced last year to 10 years after agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis