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The ringleader of a failed Al Qaeda plot to bomb the New York City subway system around the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks is set to learn his fate Thursday at a sentencing hearing after he spent years cooperating with federal authorities.
Najibullah Zazi, a 33-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Afghanistan, was busted in 2009 for a plot that then-Attorney General Eric Holder called “one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation” since 9/11. The mission had called for Zazi and two childhood friends to conduct suicide bombings on New York City subway lines during rush hour.
Zazi will be sentenced at Brooklyn federal court around 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Federal sentencing guidelines, the Associated Press says, call for Zazi to spend the rest of his life behind bars after pleading guilty in 2010 to his involvement in the terror plot.
But prosecutors on Wednesday credited Zazi for his “extraordinary” assistance to authorities over the past nine years, including implicating his two best friends in the subway plot and providing “critical intelligence and unique insight regarding Al Qaeda and its members.”
Najibullah Zazi arrives at the offices of the FBI in Denver for questioning in 2009.
ATTEMPTS BY TERRORISTS TO ATTACK NEW YORK CITY SINCE 9/11
Zazi’s cooperation included meeting with the government “more than 100 times, prosecutors said, viewing hundreds of photographs and providing information that assisted law enforcement officials in a number of different investigations.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas M. Pravda, in a court filing, wrote that “Zazi’s assistance came in the face of substantial potential danger to himself and his family.
“By aligning himself with the government against Al Qaeda, Zazi assumed such a risk,” Pravda said.
And for his cooperation, Zazi may get a lighter sentence.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told the Associated Press he believes Zazi could also get “considerably less” than life imprisonment.
Prosecutors at the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office “tend to look favorably on cooperation when it comes to terrorism cases,” he said. And the lengthy lag between Zazi’s guilty plea and sentencing, Hughes added, “speaks to the value that prosecutors saw in terms of Zazi testifying against others.”
FLASHBACK: ZAZI WAS SURROUNDED BY RADICAL INFLUENCES BEFORE ARREST
Born in Afghanistan, Zazi moved to Pakistan as a child and then relocated to New York City as a teenager.
At age 14 he was living in Queens, where his father drove a cab. Friends said he initially seemed to like American life. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen and took a job operating a coffee cart on Wall Street.
Fellow food vendors said Zazi changed, though, after a series of trips back to Pakistan. He grew a long beard, stopped wearing western clothes in favor of tunics and began playing holy music. He also ran into financial problems, declaring bankruptcy in 2008.
Not long after that, Zazi and two childhood friends from Queens— Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin — agreed to travel to Pakistan in 2008 to try to join the Taliban. Instead, they were recruited by Al Qaeda operatives for a “martyrdom operation” in the Big Apple.
Zazi, who had moved to a Denver suburb and briefly worked as an airport shuttle driver, later said he wanted to “bring attention to what the United States military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan by sacrificing my soul for the sake of saving other souls.” He cooked up explosives in a Colorado hotel room, made from a recipe of beauty supplies, the Associated Press reported.
Secretly, though, the FBI had gotten tipped off that Zazi was involved with militants. He was placed under surveillance in Colorado and followed as he drove to New York around the 2009 anniversary of the attacks. Police stopped his car as it entered the city. Officers let him go, but his rental car was later towed by the FBI.
Zazi was further spooked by a call from a Queens imam warning police were asking about him. He rushed back to Colorado. FBI agents executed a series of raids. News outlets learned of the investigation and also began hounding Zazi, who told reporters at the time that he had no idea what was going on. He was soon arrested.
Following his 2009 arrest and decision to cooperate, Zazi testified against Medunjanin in the subway plot, providing a tearful account that prosecutors said was “critical to establishing proof of Medunjanin’s understanding of and participation in the conspiracy to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan and to conduct a suicide attack on the New York City subways.”
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In 2015, he gave critical evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani national convicted of leading an Al Qaeda plot to bomb a shopping mall in Manchester, England.
Zazi also played a role in the prosecution of Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, a U.S. citizen born in Texas who was convicted of supporting Al Qaeda and conspiring to bomb a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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