Denver: An Afghan immigrant was on the verge of unleashing a terrorist attack on New York City on the September 11 anniversary but was scared off after drawing suspicion from police, prosecutors said on Friday as they provided new details about how far along the plot was.
Najibullah Zazi, 24, was stopped by police on September 10 as he entered the city, and he dropped his plans for an attack once he realised that law enforcement was onto him.
Zazi was sent to New York on Friday by federal marshals to face charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in a plot law enforcement has said was focused on blowing up commuter trains.
"The evidence suggests a chilling, disturbing sequence of events showing the defendant was intent on making a bomb and being in New York on 9/11, for purposes of perhaps using such items," federal prosecutor Tim Neff told a judge in arguing for Zazi`s transfer to New York.
Prosecutors said Zazi received explosives training from al Qaeda in Pakistan and returned to the US bent on building a bomb.
Over the summer, he and three associates went from one beauty-supply store to another in a Denver suburb buying chemicals to make explosives like those that killed dozens of people in transit bombings in London and Madrid, investigators said.
At least three and possibly more of his accomplices remain at large, and investigators have been fanning out across New York in pursuit of suspects. Authorities have also issued a flurry of terrorism warnings for sports complexes, hotels and transit systems.
A law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said associates of Zazi visited Colorado to help him buy the chemicals using stolen credit cards before returning to New York.
Another law enforcement official said that authorities had been especially worried about Zazi`s September 10 visit to the city because it coincided with a visit by President Barack Obama. Police considered arresting him right away. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation continues.
Police have been especially active in the neighbourhood in Queens where Zazi visited during his New York trip, staying at an apartment with a group of cab drivers and food cart operators he knows.
Zazi ran a coffee cart in Manhattan before moving to Denver this year and getting a job as an airport shuttle driver.
FBI raids beginning September 14 rattled a quiet, predominantly Asian neighbourhood in Queens. Muslim men said dozens of FBI agents ransacked their homes and questioned them for hours, sometimes taking DNA samples and prints from their shoes.
Because of frequent visits by police, fewer people have been attending regular services at the Masjid Hazrat Abu Bakr mosque. Zazi had returned there to pray during his brief return trip to the city earlier this month.
The FBI has also been visiting beauty shops and home-improvement stores in Colorado and New York for details about the alleged bomb-making purchases.
Court papers say that during the summer, Zazi and three unidentified associates bought "unusually large quantities" of hydrogen peroxide and acetone — a flammable solvent found in nail-polish remover — from Denver-area beauty supply stores. The products had names such as Ion Sensitive Scalp Developer and Ms K Liquid 40 Volume.
Zazi also searched the Web site of a Queens home-improvement store for another ingredient needed to make a compound called TATP (triacetone triperoxide), the explosives used by shoe bomber Richard Reid and the terrorists who carried out the London bombings that killed more than 50 people, according to court papers.
Zazi intensified his bomb-making experiments this month, cooking up substances in a Colorado hotel suite he rented on September 6-7 before driving 1,600 miles to New York over the course of about two days. He became aware that law enforcement was onto him when he was stopped entering the city on September 10, causing the plot to unravel.
Neff said Zazi "was in the throes of making a bomb and attempting to perfect his formulation."
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority — which runs New York City`s subway system, buses and commuter rails — declined to comment on the revelation of a September 11-timed plot. It reissued a statement from earlier in the week that it has boosted its police presence at "key commuter rail locations" since the terror threat became public.
The plot has also cast the spotlight on the everyday chemicals that are used in hair salons around the country but also can have a more sinister purpose.
Federal agents and police officers in New York visited up to 200 locations a day in the area during the probe, including beauty-supply stores, extended-stay hotels that have rooms with kitchens, hardware stores, truck rental agencies and storage facilities.
Zazi sat expressionless during the Denver court hearing, staring at a decanter on the defence table. He has denied being a terrorist since he was arrested last week.
Zazi "still maintains that he was not part of a terrorist cell," defence attorney Arthur Folsom said on Friday. Folsom also insisted that federal agents who searched Zazi`s car and apartment found no trace of explosives.
Ken Deal, chief deputy marshal in Denver, said Zazi was put on a government plane on Friday and flown out of southern Denver`s Centennial Airport. He was scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday in Brooklyn on charges that carry a life sentence.
A government request to deny bail laid out a chronology of the alleged scheme, which prosecutors said had been in the works for more than a year.
Security video and receipts show that some of the purchases were made near the Colorado hotel, according to court papers. On September 6 and 7, Zazi checked into a suite at the hotel with a kitchen and a stove, the papers say, and tried to contact an unidentified associate "seeking to correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives”.
"Zazi repeatedly emphasised in the communications that he needed the answers right away," the papers said, adding that each communication was "more urgent than the last”.
Beauty supply store employees in New York and the Denver suburbs said authorities had been asking whether anyone had come in buying a lot of hydrogen peroxide or acetone.
At Beauty Supply Warehouse in suburban Denver, Paul Phillips said a co-worker told investigators he had sold chemicals to Zazi. Company president Karan Hoss said the firm turned over security video of a man matching Zazi`s description to the FBI. A check of sales found that someone bought a dozen 32-ounce bottles of a hydrogen peroxide product in July. More was purchased in late August, Hoss said.