The man at the center of an investigation into a plot to bomb transportation targets in New York City pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.
Najibullah Zazi, 25, told a federal judge in Brooklyn that he was trained by al-Qaida for a "martyrdom" plan to attack the subway system.
"I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the U.S. military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan," the former Denver airport shuttle driver said.
Zazi also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support for a terrorist organization. He faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole when he is sentenced in June.
Two sources familiar with the case told NPR that Zazi pleaded guilty to protect his parents. His father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, was initially charged in September with lying to investigators. This month he was indicted on new charges of conspiring to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation into terrorism. Zazi apparently was told his mother could face criminal immigration charges.
Officials told NPR that Zazi has been cooperating with investigators in recent weeks. His lawyer was not immediately available to comment.
Zazi was born in Afghanistan and lived in Pakistan before moving to the United States with his family a decade ago. He lived in the New York City borough of Queens and moved to the Denver area in January 2009. FBI agents there had been tracking him after he made repeated trips to Pakistan and New York, officials said.
In court on Monday, Zazi said he and others originally went to Afghanistan hoping to join the Taliban and fight U.S. forces there. He flew to Pakistan at the end of August 2008 and ended up joining al-Qaida instead.
He said Al-Qaida took him to Waziristan, the area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, for training, and then asked him to go back to the U.S. and conduct suicide operations.
Zazi said there was a plot to bomb the New York City subway lines on Sept. 14, Sept. 15 or Sept. 16, 2009. He admitted building explosives and driving them cross-country to New York City, but said he disposed of them once he arrived in New York because he thought authorities were on to him.
Some law enforcement officials called the Zazi case the most serious terrorism threat in this country since 2001, citing the expertise of suspects in the case. One former law enforcement official described it as the first time since 2001 that the FBI thought it had uncovered a group that could launch a credible attack.
Since Zazi's arrest, the Obama administration has come under fire for reading terrorism suspects their rights and keeping them in civilian courts. A young Nigerian student who allegedly wanted to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day was charged in a federal court a short time later. Critics said the Obama administration lost valuable intelligence by reading Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his rights and charging him in a civilian court. They said that he should have been declared an enemy combatant and put in the military justice system.
At a press conference Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Zazi case shows that civilian courts can handle terrorism suspects.
"We need not make more of these people than they are. KSM and others at Guantanamo are thugs," he said, referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Holder seemed to suggest the Mohammed case was likely to stay in the civilian courts despite pressure to move it to the military commission system. He said a decision on where he would be tried should come soon and that the administration was still talking with local officials.
Related NPR Stories:
- Officials: Suspect Contacted Top Al-Qaida Leader
- Terrorism Case Shows Range Of Investigators' Tools
- NYC Terrorism Suspect Pleads Not Guilty
- Officials: NYC Plot Operational, Not Just Aspirational
- Prosecutor Offers Chilling Portrait Of Terror Suspect
- FBI Not Showing Cards In Alleged Terrorism Plot
- Men Ordered Held Without Bail In Terrorism Probe
- Terrorism Plot Suspects To Appear In Federal Court
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