WASHINGTON – A 24-year-old Afghan man at the center of an unfolding FBI investigation into a possible U.S. terrorism cell was ordered held without bond Monday as authorities raced to learn more about an alleged plot using hydrogen peroxide explosives and who else might have been helping to carry it out.
A federal judge in Denver followed the recommendation of Justice Department prosecutors and refused to release Najibullah Zazi, a permanent U.S. resident, who allegedly told federal agents that he had received weapons and explosives training in a conflict-laden region of Pakistan with ties to al-Qaida. Zazi was pulled over earlier this month while driving on the George Washington Bridge in New York, where FBI agents say they uncovered a handwritten recipe for making and handling explosives in a file stored on his laptop computer.
Law enforcement officials described the investigation as fluid, with critical questions unanswered. Among them: Who else may have known about the alleged plot, the identities of others who may have been involved, and if there was a plot, how close Zazi and his alleged confederates had come to carrying out an attack. Two legal sources labeled as false a news report that seven other men in the New York area had been arrested in connection with the probe. But investigators continue to conduct interviews in New York and Colorado.
To date, three men – Zazi and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, both of whom live in suburban Denver, and Queens imam Ahmad Wais Afzali – have been charged with criminal offenses. But the charge, lying to investigators in a terrorism probe, is a placeholder likely to be supplemented in the days or weeks ahead, the law enforcement sources said on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry continues.
Last week in searches executed in Queens and Denver, federal agents found a black scale and AA batteries that bore Zazi’s fingerprints, according to court papers. They also found cell phones and more than a dozen backpacks and interviewed the operator of a New York-area U-Haul shop, who said he turned away men who tried to rent a truck there.
Denver Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer ordered Najibullah Zazi to appear in court again Thursday for a formal detention hearing. The judge released Mohammed Zazi on a $50,000 unsecured bond. He will be confined to his home and subjected to electronic monitoring.
FBI agents said Afzali, a longtime source for the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, improperly tipped off Zazi that law enforcement was on his trail in a phone call recorded by authorities. Afzali later misled them about the conversations, the agents said.
“They’re not charging him with being a member of al-Qaida, they’re not charging him with being a terrorist, and he’s not,” Ronald Kuby, a lawyer for Afzali, said of his client. “He should be charged with criminal stupidity for trying to help the FBI and answer their questions.”
Counterterrorism experts said U.S. officials were taking the case “very seriously” because of the apparent similarities to recent plots in the United Kingdom linked to al-Qaida.