NEW YORK – An Afghan immigrant who received explosives training from al-Qaida went from one beauty supply store to another, buying up large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and nail-polish remover, in a chilling plot to build bombs for attacks on U.S. soil, authorities charged Thursday.
Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old shuttle driver at the Denver airport, was indicted in New York on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Investigators found bomb-making instructions on his computer’s hard drive and said Zazi used a hotel room in Colorado to try to cook up explosives a few weeks ago before a trip to New York.
The extent of Zazi’s alleged ties to al-Qaida was unclear, but if the charges prove true, this could be the first operating al-Qaida cell to be uncovered in the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks. Over the past few days, talk of the possible plot set off the most intense flurry of national terrorism warnings since the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Prosecutors said they have yet to establish exactly when and where the Zazi attacks were supposed to take place. But Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington, “We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted.”
A law enforcement official said Thursday that Zazi had associates in New York who were in on the plot.
Zazi was arrested in Denver last weekend and was charged along with his father and a New York City imam with lying to investigators. Authorities said in the past few days that they feared Zazi and others might have been planning to detonate homemade bombs on New York trains, and warnings went out to transit systems, stadiums and hotels nationwide.
Explosives built with hydrogen peroxide killed 52 people four years ago in the London transit system. They are easy to conceal and detonate, and last week’s warnings asked authorities to be on the lookout for them.
A law enforcement official said Thursday that authorities had been so worried about Zazi – and that his Sept. 10 trip to New York City coincided with a visit by President Barack Obama – that they considered arresting him as soon as he reached the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation continues.
Zazi left a Denver court Thursday without commenting and will be transferred soon to New York. He and his lawyer have denied he is a terrorist.
Zazi’s father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, and the imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, also appeared in court Thursday. Mohammed Zazi, 53, was ordered freed under court supervision in Denver until an Oct. 9 hearing. Afzali, who was accused of tipping off the Zazis to the federal probe against them in a tapped telephone call, was released in New York on $1.5 million bail.