Najibullah Zazi, the would-be New York City subway bomber, will finally be sentenced on May 2, over nine years after he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and more than a decade after the media descended on Denver to cover his story.
In September 2009, Zazi, now 33, was arrested in Aurora and held on multiple terrorism charges related to his plan to blow up the New York City subway system. Although he initially denied being involved in terrorist activities, the Denver airport shuttle driver eventually admitted to investigators that he and two high school friends, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, had been recruited by Al-Qaeda to carry out suicide bombings in New York. Zazi pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in February 2010 and has been awaiting sentencing in the Eastern District of New York Court ever since.
Despite his guilty plea, Zazi's sentencing has been repeatedly pushed back through agreements between prosecutors and his defense counsel. And that raises questions about what he's been doing, and where, for the past nine years.
“When someone pleads guilty and you still want them to cooperate in testifying against co-conspirators, you hold on sentencing, because cooperation will play a role in the reduction of sentencing,” says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Still, the lengthy pre-sentencing period for Zazi is abnormal, Hughes adds: “That’s an outlier. It’s usually never this long for terrorism."
Since he was arrested, Zazi has testified at multiple terrorism trials.
Although both Zazi and Ahmedzay pleaded guilty, their co-defendant, Medunjanin, pleaded not guilty. In 2012, Zazi testified at Medunjanin's trial, which eventually led to a conviction and sentence of life in prison for Medunjanin, who is currently incarcerated at Colorado's supermax prison.
In 2015, Zazi and Ahmedzay testified at a trial over a plot to bomb a shopping center in England. The defendant in that case, Abid Naseer, was sentenced to forty years in U.S. prison.
Aside from his occasional appearances in court, where Zazi has been all these years remains a mystery. A search on the Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate database returns no results for his name.
But a May 2013 audit report by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Justice indicates that Zazi may actually be in a government witness protection program. According to that report: "The Department stated that known or suspected terrorists admitted into the WITSEC Program provided invaluable and critical information and testimony that assisted the government in identifying, dismantling, and prosecuting terrorist organizations. These witnesses cooperated in major terrorism investigations and prosecutions that the Department described as integral to its primary counterterrorism mission, including...the New York City subway suicide-bomb plot. ... The Department believes that as a result of their cooperation, the known or suspected terrorists admitted into the WITSEC Program faced danger of retaliation."
Although Zazi doesn't appear in the federal prison database, he has definitely been in the prison system. Ismail Royer, a former federal prison inmate, says that he spotted Zazi in an adjacent cell in 2013. "I had very little interaction as we were in solitary confinement on the 6th floor of FTC Oklahoma. We nodded and waved at each other (recognized each other as Muslims, and I recognized him from the news), but our cells were too far apart to communicate," Royer wrote to Westword.
Originally from Afghanistan, the Zazi family moved to Pakistan in the early ’90s. Not long after, the family emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Queens, where Mohammad Zazi, Najibullah's father, drove a cab. Najibullah Zazi enrolled in the New York public school system but eventually dropped out of high school.
In 2006, Zazi traveled to Pakistan, where he met his future wife. In the years following their arranged marriage, Zazi traveled periodically to Pakistan to see his wife. But it was his last trip to the country that set him on a path toward prison.
In his 2010 plea agreement hearing, Zazi admitted that he traveled from the New York metro area to Peshawar, Pakistan, in August 2008 with the goal of joining the Taliban to fight against American soldiers. But instead of linking up with the Taliban while in Peshawar, Zazi came into contact with, and was recruited by, Al-Qaeda. Zazi said he received weapons training at an Al-Qaeda camp in Waziristan, a province in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, and committed to conducting a suicide bombing in the U.S.
"I [agreed] because of my feelings about what the United States was doing in Afghanistan," Zazi said at the hearing.
He also said that he received bomb-making training from Al-Qaeda, and emailed himself notes on how to use acetone peroxide to make homemade bomb detonators.
Upon returning to the U.S., Zazi ended up moving in with an aunt and uncle in Aurora and landed a job driving a shuttle at Denver International Airport. While making money as a shuttle driver, Zazi spent his cash at local beauty stores to acquire materials for bombs.
In September 2009, Zazi rented a car and drove cross-country to New York. While there, he and two of his high school classmates from Queens scouted out which subway lines they would target. But Zazi soon realized that law enforcement agents were tracking him: Port Authority police stopped Zazi as he was crossing the George Washington Bridge, though he was not arrested. His cover blown, he flew back to Colorado.
When news broke that Zazi was being investigated for involvement in a bombing plot, a media frenzy erupted in Denver. Zazi spoke with journalists and denied any terrorist connections. He hired a lawyer.
Not long after, he was arrested and held on terrorism charges.
At the time, Attorney General Eric Holder said that Zazi's plot could have been devastating if it had come to fruition. "This was one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation since September 11, 2001," Holder said.
In 2012, Zazi's father was convicted of lying to protect his son. Mohammad Zazi was released from prison in December 2015.
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Before his arrest, Najibullah Zazi also became friends on the Internet with Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a Leadville resident and nursing student who also jumped into the world of extremism and later developed the media moniker "Jihad Jamie."
Paulin-Ramirez, now forty, was sentenced to prison on terrorism charges in 2014 and released in March 2017.
Zazi's sentencing will take place on May 2 in New York at 12:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time.
Update: Zazi was scheduled to be sentenced on April 23, but early that morning the date was pushed back to May 2. This story has been updated to reflect Zazi's new sentencing date.