NEW YORK (Reuters) - An Afghan immigrant pleaded guilty on Monday to plotting a suicide bomb attack on New York City subways with al Qaeda training for what would have been the worst attack on the United States since September 11, 2001.
Najibullah Zazi, 25, also admitted in Brooklyn federal court that he had received bomb-making and weapons training from al Qaeda in Pakistan’s Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan.
“The plan was to conduct (a) martyrdom operation in Manhattan” around the time of the eighth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, Zazi told U.S. District Raymond Dearie.
“To me, it meant I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the U.S. military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan,” Zazi, wearing a neatly trimmed beard and prison uniform, said in an emotionless tone.
Zazi pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support to al Qaeda.
The guilty pleas -- termed an agreement between prosecutors and the defense -- suggest Zazi was willing to cooperate with investigators, but lawyers in the case declined to comment.
He faces life in prison and may be cooperating in order to win concessions for his father, who is charged with lying to federal investigators in order to protect his son.
A New York City imam and two high school classmates of Zazi are also charged in connection with the case.
Zazi moved to the New York City borough of Queens as a teenager and went to high school there. He attended a mosque led by Ahmad Afzali, the self-proclaimed pro-American imam who has cooperated with police in previous investigations.
Afzali was accused of tipping off Zazi that he was under surveillance.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the plot one of the most serious security threats to the United States since the September 11 attacks, saying, “It was in motion. And it would have been deadly.”
Holder also said the case showed the civilian criminal justice system had the capacity to disrupt security threats and gain intelligence, an effort to counter conservative critics who have called for a military commission to try the suspected September 11 plotters and the man suspected of attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day last year.
“To take this tool (civilian prosecution) out of our hands, to denigrate this tool, flies in the face of the facts, flies in the face of the history of this tool and is more about politics than it is about facts,” Holder said.
Zazi said he and unnamed others -- they are believed to be his high school classmates -- traveled to Pakistan en route to Afghanistan in 2008 in order to “fight alongside (the) Taliban against the United States and its allies.”
“While we were in Pakistan we were recruited by al Qaeda. Al Qaeda asked us to return to the United States to conduct martyrdom operations,” Zazi said.
He admitted to driving from Colorado to New York in September of 2009 with detonators and materials to build bombs, and that he threw them away when he realized authorities had him under surveillance.
Prosecutors said Zazi took a bomb-making course at an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, had notes on how to make explosives on his laptop computer and acquired materials similar to those used in bomb attacks in London in 2005, buying acetone and hydrogen peroxide at beauty supply stores.
In January, federal authorities arrested Zazi’s classmates, Adis Medunjanin, 25, who is of Bosnian origin, and Zarein Ahmedzay, 24, who is of Afghani origin, after Medunjanin led the FBI on a high-speed chase in Queens during which he invoked the name of Allah in a 911 emergency call, according to a law enforcement official.
Medunjanin pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and receiving military-style training from al Qaeda. Ahmedzay pleaded not guilty to a charge of making false statements to the FBI.
Zazi’s father and the imam also have pleaded not guilty in their cases.
Additional reporting by Basil Katz in New York and James Vicini in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Philip Barbara and Paul Simao