DENVER (Reuters) - The Afghan-born man at the center of an anti-terrorism probe was determined to make a bomb and perhaps detonate it in New York City on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, before he was thwarted by authorities, a U.S. prosecutor said on Friday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Neff summed up the government’s case against Najibullah Zazi, 24, in a Denver courtroom before the suspect was flown in federal custody to New York to face a charge of plotting bomb attacks in the United States.
Zazi, linked by authorities to al Qaeda, was making his third appearance before a federal judge in Denver. He was ordered to remain held without bail, then put aboard a U.S. Marshals Service jet for the cross-country flight. His first New York court appearance is set for Tuesday.
Zazi is accused of receiving bomb-making instructions during a trip to Pakistan last year, then buying and preparing chemicals for use in home-made explosives like those employed in the deadly London mass transit bombings in 2005.
A grand jury in New York has charged Zazi, a legal U.S. resident born in Afghanistan, under federal anti-terrorism laws with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, an offense outlined in an indictment unsealed on Thursday. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
Law enforcement experts have called the suspected conspiracy, if proven, one of the most significant security threats in the United States since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Authorities say the case is unrelated to two other security arrests this week in Dallas and Springfield, Illinois. Before his arrest, Zazi denied wrongdoing in media interviews and through his lawyers.
The investigation came to light earlier this month after Zazi drove across the country from Colorado, arriving in New York City on September 10 in a rental car in which authorities say he carried a laptop computer with detailed bomb-making notes.
Neff, arguing in court that Zazi should remain in custody, said the evidence showed “a chilling, disturbing sequence of events that indicate the defendant was intent on making a bomb and being in New York on 9/11, perhaps using such items.”
“The evidence suggests the defendant was in the throes of making a bomb,” he said.
Prosecutors say Zazi, who worked as a shuttle bus driver at the Denver airport after moving to Colorado this year, traveled to Pakistan three or four times and to Canada twice during the past 10 years. Neff also said Zazi’s wife was in Pakistan and “is having trouble getting into this country.”
Documents accompanying the indictment against him refer to at least three other unnamed associates purchasing large amounts of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products from beauty supply stores over the summer.
Authorities have said they are continuing an investigation that has so far focused on Zazi, suggesting more arrests are possible in New York and Colorado. They have not made clear whether they consider Zazi a conspiracy leader or someone acting at the behest of others.
He was arrested last Saturday on charges of lying to federal agents investigating the case following three days of intense questioning by the FBI in Denver.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer ordered him to remain held without bond and moved to New York.
Dressed in a white T-shirt and tan trousers, he said little during the hearing, answering only, “Yes, your honor,” when asked whether he understood the charge against him, the penalties he faced and his constitutional rights.
At the request of prosecutors, Shaffer dismissed the earlier charge of making false statements, a move that made it easier to transfer him to New York.
The suspect’s father, Mohammed Zazi, and a New York imam, Ahmad Afzali, accused of having tipped off the younger Zazi that he was under scrutiny, also were charged with lying to investigators.
They were released on Thursday but ordered placed under electronic monitoring.
Reporting by Robert Boczkiewicz; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney