Today AQ-affiliated terrorist Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty in Brooklyn Federal Court, admitting that he and several associates were planning a "martyrdom operation" targeting Manhattan's subway system to be carried out sometime in mid-September 2009. As has been previously reported, Zazi's plot was disrupted by federal officials who had been tracking him for several months, eventually ending in his car being stopped by FBI agents on a bridge into Manhattan. Prior to his arrest, Zazi resided in Aurora, CO, where he had rented a hotel room and was utilizing a recipe (given to him at an Al Qaeda training facility in Pakistan) to create TATP-based explosives.
Zazi faces a maximum sentence of life in prison after pleading guilty to three separate charges: conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to kill US soldiers abroad, and providing support to al Qaeda. Reportedly, Zazi agreed to plead guilty to the charges in an attempt to spare his parents from prosecution.
For more background on Najibullah Zazi and the circumstances leading to his detention in September 2009, check out my previous posts here and here. Also, see this excellent summary of the incident from the NEFA Foundation.
Zazi's guilty plea in this important case is significant for several reasons:
1) In terms of understanding current and future threats, Zazi's failed plot highlights the fact that Al Qaeda still retains the capability and intent to conduct attacks against the US homeland originating from the AfPak region. Zazi first became affiliated with Al Qaeda at a training camp in Pakistan in 2008, where he traveled so that he could fight alongside the Taliban. However, several AQ leaders identified his potential utility in a more significant attack, re-directing him to focus on planning and conducting a suicide attack in the US. I think it's safe to assume that AQ continues to focus much of their recruiting efforts on US citizens and visa holders, as evidenced by the five young men from Virginia who were recently arrested in Pakistan after being recruited via Facebook.
2) In terms of determining how best to prosecute future terrorist cases within the US, the successful guilty plea by Zazi should be viewed as evidence that utilizing the existing criminal system (rather than the military justice system) is the best way to go. As Attorney General Eric Holder said today, "In this case, as it has in so many other cases, the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists, one that works in concert with the intelligence community and our military." The ability to apply pressure to Zazi through prosecution of his parents would not have been available in the military justice system. We are also seeing similar results in the ongoing interrogations and prosecution of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the failed Christmas Day bomber), who began providing detailed intelligence to officials after his parents were flown to Detroit.