N.Y. Terror Plot: Is It Still Happening?

Days after local police and federal agents busted up an alleged terror plot targeting public transportation in the New York area, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials still aren't sure if they have captured all of the suspects who might have been in on the plan. Contacted by NEWSWEEK, some officials say they believe U.S. agencies "successfully disrupted" the plot with the arrests last weekend of two men in Denver and one in Queens, New York. But other officials say that more suspects are being sought, and that urgent efforts are continuing to locate what investigators fear could be a bomb factory or an explosives stockpile. (Story continued below...)

Court documents made public over the weekend by federal authorities accused three men of making false statements to federal investigators when they were recently questioned about the alleged plot. Two of the men, Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan-born U.S. resident, and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53, live in Denver. The third man, 37-year-old Ahmad Wais Afzali, is an Afghan-born imam living in Queens. The elder Zazi has been released on bail; detention hearings for his son and Afzali are expected later this week. Lawyers for the suspects have said the men have done nothing wrong. Ron Kuby, a lawyer for Afzali, the Queens imam, said that his client had a good working relationship with NYPD officers in his neighborhood. Official papers say the NYPD considered the cleric a "source"; Kuby described him as a "community liaison."

The three were arrested following extensive search and surveillance operations that the Feds say resulted in the seizure of incriminating evidence. This includes nine pages of handwritten notes stored on a computer owned by the younger Zazi. Court documents say the scanned notes "contain formulations and instructions regarding the manufacture and handling of initiating explosives, main explosives charges, explosives detonators and components of a fuzing system."

The Feds say that although they believe the notes are in the younger Zazi's handwriting, he claimed he had never seen them before. The Feds say that he had traveled from Newark to Peshawar, Pakistan—a center of militant activity—in August last year and that he was recorded reentering the United States at JFK airport last January. The court documents say that Zazi told the Feds that during his trip to Pakistan, he had "attended courses at an Al Qaeda training facility," where he "received instruction from Al Qaeda operatives on subjects such as weapons and explosives." Zazi has denied that he has any connection to Al Qaeda and says he was in Pakistan only to visit his wife.

Counterterrorism officials familiar with intelligence reports related to the investigation say that investigators can't link the alleged U.S. plot to Al Qaeda's core leaders, such as Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. The officials said it's more likely the camp where Zazi allegedly trained was operated by Al Qaeda supporters or affiliates, such as Pakistan-based militant factions connected to the territorial rivalry between Pakistan and India in the disputed border region of Kashmir.

Four government officials familiar with the investigation, all of whom asked for anonymity because of the continuing inquiry, say they believe there are similarities between the explosives recipes and schematics found on the seized computer and materials used in the design and manufacture of homemade bombs used to attack the London public-transportation system on July 7 and July 21, 2005.

Several officials said that among items seized during searches were a stack of empty backpacks; also seized was video of New York's Grand Central Terminal. An official close to the investigation acknowledged that when put together, the evidence collected so far constitutes a circumstantial case suggesting the alleged plotters might have been targeting New York–area public-transport facilities, such as subways, commuter trains, or buses. In addition to the 2005 London transport attacks, Al Qaeda–linked plotters also used backpack bombs to attack commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004. However, the official also said that there might be benign explanations for some of the seized evidence, such as the video of Grand Central station.

Another official indicated that investigators were particularly concerned that they have so far failed to find the kind of explosives-related materials featured in the computer notes. The official indicated that searching for such items remains a very high priority for investigators. This suggests they have some compelling reason to believe such materials are hidden somewhere, although the official indicated that Zazi has denied any knowledge of such a stash.

Late last week, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security advised local authorities to step up security against possible mass-transit attacks. Then, earlier this week, they issued additional warnings about Al Qaeda's longstanding interest in attacking hotels, stadiums, and large entertainment complexes. But officials also said that apart from circumstantial evidence suggesting similarities with past transit-attack plots in Europe, they don't know whether the suspected plotters had identified specific targets for attack.

Several officials confirmed that authorities in New York and Colorado are continuing to investigate other potential suspects in connection with the alleged plot—perhaps more than a dozen, according to news reports—although NEWSWEEK sources said they couldn't confirm a specific number.

One official with a broad overview of the probe indicated that authorities believe the danger of any attack resulting from the plot has likely dissipated as a result of the arrests and publicity. The official said ongoing inquiries by the FBI and local authorities, including the New York Police Department, mainly involve tying up loose ends. However, other officials said that it is too early to be confident that the alleged plot has been neutralized.

N.Y. Terror Plot: Is It Still Happening? | U.S.