Najibullah Zazi, the former Denver International Airport shuttle driver and Aurora resident who plotted to blow up the New York City subway system, was sentenced May 2 for ten years for terrorism charges. Because Zazi has already served nearly ten years, he will likely be released in the coming days or weeks.
The typical sentence for the crimes Zazi pleaded guilty to would be life imprisonment, according to a sentencing memorandum from federal prosecutors. However, he has proved to be a government asset. Since Zazi began cooperating with federal law enforcement in February 2010, less than half a year after he was first arrested, his assistance has been remarkable, federal prosecutors say.
"Over the past eight years, Zazi has provided extraordinary cooperation, meeting with the government more than 100 times, viewing hundreds of photographs, and providing information that assisted law enforcement officials in a number of different investigations even where Zazi did not personally know the subjects of those investigations," Richard Donoghue, the prosecutor handling Zazi's case, wrote in a memorandum to the court.
Zazi's testimony has been used to prosecute five people, including two of his co-conspirators and best friends, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin, the latter of whom is currently being held in Colorado's supermax prison in Florence.
Donoghue didn't offer the court a recommended sentence. But he did dedicate 25 pages to Zazi's work on behalf of the U.S. government, which could help reduce his sentence.
Donoghue filed the sentencing memorandum in the Eastern District of New York Court on February 15, but the document was only made public on May 1. Many sections are redacted, which Donoghue said is a necessity because Zazi's intel is still helping the U.S. government.
"The extensive information Zazi provided continues to directly contribute to ongoing law enforcement investigations related to national security matters, and revealing that information could jeopardize some of those ongoing investigations," Donoghue wrote.
Zazi was born in Afghanistan and spent part of his childhood in Pakistan. He and his family came to Queens in the mid-’90s to join Zazi's father, who was working at the time in the New York City borough as a taxi driver. Zazi studied in New York public schools but never finished high school.
In 2006, Zazi visited Pakistan, where he met his future wife. The two got married, and Zazi returned periodically to see her. But Zazi's visits to Pakistan soon became about more than just romance.
In a 2010 plea-agreement hearing, Zazi confessed that he traveled from the New York metro area to Peshawar, Pakistan, in August 2008 with the goal of enlisting in the Taliban to fight against American soldiers. However, instead of joining the Taliban, Zazi came in contact with Al-Qaeda. The terrorist organization recruited him and sent him to a training camp in Waziristan, a province in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, for weapons training. At the time, Zazi also agreed to conduct a suicide-bombing mission in the U.S.
"I [agreed] because of my feelings about what the United States was doing in Afghanistan," Zazi said at the hearing.
Zazi also noted that he received bomb-making training at the Al-Qaeda camp and sent himself an email that included instructions for how to use acetone peroxide to make homemade bomb detonators.
Once he returned to the U.S., Zazi moved in with an aunt and uncle in Aurora. He quickly got a job driving a shuttle at Denver International Airport. In his free time, he visited local beauty stores to acquire materials for bombs.
Then, in September 2009, Zazi rented a car and drove from Aurora to New York. While there, he, Ahmedzay and Medunjanin scouted the subway lines they would target in suicide attacks. Law enforcement was aware of the plans, and Port Authority police stopped Zazi as he was crossing the George Washington Bridge. Authorities didn't arrest him at the time, but he said he knew that his cover was blown and flew back to Colorado.
When Zazi was outed by local media as the Colorado resident being investigated for involvement in a bombing plot, journalists from around the U.S. descended upon Denver.
Zazi told reporters he had nothing to do with terrorist plots. He also hired a lawyer. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and held on terrorism charges.
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If Zazi had succeeded in his bombing plot, it would have been devastating. "This was one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation since September 11, 2001," Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time.
The full sentencing memorandum is available below.
This story has been updated with Zazi's sentence information.