Inside the Zazi Arrest

"The ticking bomb" is a cliché in movies about cops and spies and terrorists, but sometimes in real life, with real terrorists, it's the real deal. And that's what the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City Police Department saw themselves up against in the case of Najibullah Zazi, the 24-year-old Afghan immigrant indicted Thursday for "conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction." Did the cops make mistakes? Some. Did Zazi find out the Feds were on to him sooner than they wanted him to know? Yes. Did the bomb go off? No. Or not yet, anyway.

To understand the case, which may have been the most dangerous Al Qaeda-related plot to take place in the United States since 9/11, it helps to understand how fast everything played out, and how little time the Feds and the New York cops thought they had to begin with. And while there are many old feuds between the Feds and the cops about turf and priorities, with a historical reluctance to share information, that wasn't the problem this time. President Barack Obama was coming to town—and so was this Afghan immigrant believed to have been given explosives training by Qaeda-related groups in Pakistan. The clock really was ticking.

Knowledgeable law-enforcement officials who declined to be named talking about an extremely sensitive investigation tell me that David Cohen, the head of the NYPD Intelligence Division, made it clear he wanted Zazi off the streets sooner rather than later. Cohen spent more than 30 years in the Central Intelligence Agency and headed its clandestine services. He's all in favor of postponing arrests, or never making them at all, if that helps gather intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks. But not in this case. "I don't need to f--k around for two more weeks and learn one more fact," he is supposed to have told senior officials in New York and Washington. "Sometimes the search for intelligence can get you killed."

This, according to these same officials, is what the countdown looked like:

It is Wednesday, Sept. 9, two days before the anniversary of 9/11 and just five days before Obama is scheduled to make a major speech on Wall Street, only a few hundred yards from Ground Zero. A week after that, the U.N. General Assembly will be in full session, with some 150 heads of state gridlocking Manhattan. And now the FBI tells the NYPD it's concerned about the activities of this guy, Najibullah Zazi, whom agents have been watching for months in Colorado. The Feds have good reason to believe he's been trained in bombmaking in Pakistan. They say they know he's been stockpiling the same kind of chemical components—hydrogen peroxide and acetone—used to concoct the explosives used in the horrific London subway bombings in 2005. Over the past few days surveillance suggests he's not only been cooking them up, he's allegedly been calling friends to make sure he gets the mixture just right. The New York City connection? He was brought up in Queens in a neighborhood long known to be full of Taliban supporters. And at this moment he is in a rental car headed east. The FBI is watching him. The bureau normally works with more than 100 NYPD detectives in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but on this one it wants Cohen's Intelligence Division working the case, too.

A couple of years ago, that kind of cooperation didn't exist. After Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reorganized the force in the wake of 9/11 and brought in Cohen, the Intelligence Division had an extremely rocky relationship with the FBI field office. Cohen's detectives focus on preventing new attacks, not pulling together cases for prosecution after the fact, which is what FBI agents traditionally have been tasked to do. The NYPD intelligence unit works undercover and gathers human intelligence in New York City, in the wider United States, and even overseas. FBI agents, used to believing they have a monopoly on that kind of work, wanted to keep it, and the infighting was legendary.

Despite all that, FBI Director Robert Mueller—who has tried to shift the FBI law-enforcement culture from after-the-fact prosecution toward more aggressive measures to prevent terrorism—has developed a good working relationship with Kelly. And since Joseph Demarest took over as the head of the FBI field office in New York late last year, according to law-enforcement officials, cooperation on the ground has improved dramatically. One of those officials says that the FBI has worked closely with the NYPD intel detectives on more than two dozen important cases in the past several months.

On Thursday, Sept. 10, Zazi is driving into the city. More details about the case and pictures of the suspect were laid on the table, literally, at the FBI field office high above Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. The message was clear. The Feds and the cops, working together, need to find out everything they can about Zazi's movements and contacts, and they need to know it all right away.

Nobody is sure what Zazi might have in his car. There could be a bomb there already. So, according to law-enforcement officials, the Feds asked the Port Authority Police, a separate jurisdiction from the NYPD, to set up a security check on the George Washington Bridge. It will intercept several cars. But Zazi's is the one they want. They find nothing, and he is allowed to proceed. Law-enforcement officials now believe Zazi was spooked by the encounter and probably decided at that point he would fly back to Denver sooner rather than later.

That same night, two Intelligence Division detectives working their sources in Queens paid a visit to Ahmad Afzali, the imam of a local mosque frequented by Afghans. Afzali was never a paid informant, according to law-enforcement sources, but was used to corroborate information from others. In this case, he says he knows Zazi and identifies his picture, along with others. But what neither the Feds shadowing Zazi nor the NYPD detectives trying to scope out his network know is how close a friend the imam is to Zazi's 53-year-old father, Mohammed.

It's Sept. 11. FBI agents and Intelligence Division detectives meeting that morning believe they have a good handle on the Zazi case. They have found this source, Afzali, who knows quite a lot about Zazi and his friends. The suspect is under surveillance, and a warrant has been obtained to search his rental car and the laptop inside. Then word comes that a phone call has been intercepted from someone telling Mohammed Zazi the cops are asking about his son. The name of the caller is not the one the cops have been using. The top Intelligence Division detective at the meeting steps out of the room to phone his office and check. Yeah, that's Afzali, he says when he comes back in.

The next day, Saturday, Najibullah Zazi is on a plane back to Denver, and there are a lot of loose ends. How much of a network was Zazi involved with? ("You study these things and they get bigger, then smaller, then bigger—like an accordion," as one veteran counterterrorism analyst puts it.) Where are the explosives or their components? No one seems to know.

On Wednesday the 16th, the FBI in Denver began questioning Zazi directly. His father was brought in as well, and Afzali was picked up in New York. On Saturday the 19th all three men were charged with allegedly lying to federal officers. On Sept. 24, Najibullah Zazi was indicted for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The investigation continues. More than 120 detectives from the NYPD Intelligence Division remain assigned to the case.

Inside the Zazi Arrest | News