Najibullah Zazi, the Denver International Airport shuttle driver who plotted to blow up the New York City subway system, may be released from prison in the coming months. Yesterday, May 2, a federal judge sentenced Zazi, 33, to ten years in prison, which is approximately the amount of time that he's already spent in custody.
It's quite the break for Zazi, who was looking at life in prison less than a decade ago.
In September 2009, Zazi was arrested in Aurora and charged with two counts of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and one count of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country; he pleaded guilty to those crimes in February 2010.
But Zazi possibly shaved decades off his sentence by spending his time in lock-up assisting federal law enforcement in terrorism investigations. The Afghan national also testified against multiple defendants charged for terrorism activities, including his co-conspirators and best friends Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay.
Prosecutors were so impressed by his assistance that they referred to it as "extraordinary" in a 25-page letter they sent in February to the judge who sentenced Zazi.
Even though Zazi should be released in the coming months, his assistance will still help counterterrorism work; the intel he's provided the government is being used in multiple investigations.
Zazi says he's not the person he was ten years ago. In a letter he sent the judge before sentencing, the former Aurora resident characterized himself as an impressionable young man back in 2007 with limited knowledge of Islam and weak Arabic, which is the original script of the Qur'an.
He says that around this time, Medunjanin introduced him to the tapes of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American who spent extensive time in Colorado before going on to become the most influential English-language Al-Qaeda propagandist. Zazi wrote that he was heavily affected by these videos and that al-Awlaki's speeches led him to want to fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan.
In August 2008, Zazi traveled from the New York metro area to Pakistan with the goal of joining the Taliban. But he linked up with Al-Qaeda instead. The terrorist organization provided Zazi with weapons training in a camp on the Pakistan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. While in the Al-Qaeda camp, Zazi 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 in a 2010 court hearing.
Zazi also received training on how to make a bomb from Al-Qaeda and emailed himself notes on how to construct a homemade bomb detonator using acetone peroxide.
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When Zazi returned to the U.S., he relocated from Queens, where he went to high school, to Aurora, where he moved in with an aunt and uncle and got a job as a shuttle driver at DIA. During his time off, Zazi shopped at local beauty stores to acquire materials for bombs.
In September 2009, Zazi rented a car and drove cross-country to New York, where he linked up with Ahmedzay and Medunjanin so they could scout subway lines to target. But law enforcement agents were on to Zazi: Port Authority police stopped, but did not arrest, him as he was crossing the George Washington Bridge. Zazi then flew back to Colorado.
When the media revealed that he was the person being investigated for the subway bombing plot, journalists from around the U.S. descended on Denver. Zazi initially spoke with journalists and denied any terrorist connections. Shortly thereafter, Zazi was arrested and held on terrorism charges.
Attorney General Eric Holder said that the 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."