By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball
In a Brooklyn court hearing on Friday, federal investigators presented eyewitness evidence that, at least as of 2008, Al Qaeda "central" was still capable of organizing plots on U.S. territory. Zarein Ahmedzay, a confessed member of a terror cell that was plotting suicide-bomb attacks on the New York City subway system last September, told a federal judge that he and two of his colleagues were personally recruited for their mission by two top Qaeda operatives, one of whom was Saleh al-Somali, identified by the feds as "the chief of international operations" for the terror group.
In a statement made at a hearing to enter his guilty plea to U.S. terrorism charges, Ahmedzay said that after traveling from the United States to Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan in August 2008, he and two American colleagues met with al-Somali and another top Qaeda operative, Rashid Rauf, the latter formerly a resident of England. The two Qaeda leaders enticed the visitors from America to abandon a plan they had concocted to join Islamic insurgents fighting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Instead the two Qaeda chiefs explained to the Americans that "they would be more useful to Al Qaeda and the jihad if they returned to New York and conducted attacks there." Attorney General Eric Holder said the facts disclosed today by Ahmedzay "add chilling details" to the New York subway plot, whose mastermind, Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant to the U.S., pleaded guilty to terrorism charges earlier this year.
Ahmedzay's account of how the alleged U.S. plotters were personally counseled and instructed by top Qaeda terrorists is among the first evidence to surface in years that operatives believed to be close to Qaeda’s fugitive paramount leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as of 2008 were still capable of organizing a plot intended to cause mass casualties against a major target inside the U.S. However, since that time, crackdowns by U.S. and Pakistani security forces against Qaeda operatives hiding out in Pakistan have taken a further toll on the group's leadership.
As we reported here, U.S. counterterrorism officials say they believe Rauf, who was linked by British investigators to a notoriously disruptive 2006 plot to simultaneously attack transatlantic airline flights using homemade bombs concealed in sports-drink bottles, was killed in an attack by a Predator drone-borne missile in North Waziristan around November 2008. For a time, Rauf had led something of a charmed existence as a terrorist, reportedly having been captured, and later having escaped, from the custody of Pakistani authorities. Family members claimed after the alleged drone attack that he was still alive, but U.S. officials expressed high confidence last year he was dead; one official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said on Friday that Rauf had not been heard from in many months—a fact that tends to support reports of his demise.
As we also reported here, the other senior Qaeda operative accused in Ahmedzay’s testimony of helping to organize the failed subway attack plot, al-Somali, was alleged by U.S. officials to have been killed last December in another drone-born missile strike at a target in the Pakistani tribal region. At the time of his reported death, a U.S. counterterrorism official described al-Somali as an important cog in what is left of Al Qaeda's central leadership.
According to the official, the dead man "was responsible for Al Qaeda's operations outside the Afghan-Pakistan region. He was engaged in plotting throughout the world. Given his central role, this probably included plotting attacks against the United States and Europe. He took strategic guidance from Al Qaeda top leadership and translated it into operational blueprints for prospective terrorist attacks."
In its summary of evidence presented during Ahmedzay’s guilty-plea hearing, the Justice Department said that Ahmedzay, Zazi, and their third cohort were trained by Qaeda leaders in using several different kinds of weapons, and discussed with the Qaeda chiefs possible targets and target dates for attacks in Manhattan. The Justice Department says that Qaeda leaders "emphasized the need to hit well-known structures and maximize the number of casualties." Zazi later received explosives training from Qaeda operatives, though Ahmedzay changed his mind and did not participate in this training, and apparently had reservations about the suicide-bombing plan, which he later rationalized away.
Back in the U.S., the government says, Zazi and Ahmedzay decided they would attack subway trains rather than buildings because of the limits on the amount of homemade explosives Zazi believed he could produce. The feds say Zazi drove cross-country from Denver to New York a few days before the 9/11 anniversary last September, taking with him homemade bomb ingredients. Law-enforcement officials now say that Zazi ditched the bomb-making materials after he was pulled over for questioning by police on the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York, and concluded that the cops were on to him.