The FBI arrested a 24-year-old Colorado man on charges of making false statements to federal agents in an ongoing terror investigation, and supporting documents contend the man admitted receiving weapons and explosives training from al-Qaida in Pakistan.
Najibullah Zazi of the Denver suburb of Aurora was arrested late Saturday after undergoing three days of questioning by the FBI. Zazi, a legal permanent resident from Afghanistan, was due to appear in federal court on Monday.
Also arrested were Zazi’s father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53, in Denver; and an associate, Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, of Queens, N.Y., the Justice Department said Sunday. Both also were charged with making false statements to federal agents, a charge that carries a penalty of eight years in prison. Court appearances for both also were set for Monday.
Zazi has repeatedly denied to reporters any connection to al-Qaida or to a purported terrorist plot.
A senior U.S. intelligence official in Washington told The Associated Press Friday that Zazi has indicated that he is directly linked with al-Qaida. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters, said Zazi played a crucial role in an intended terrorist attack but that it was not immediately clear what the targets were.
The FBI is investigating several individuals in the United States, Pakistan and elsewhere in an alleged plot to detonate explosive devices in the United States, the Justice Department said in a statement.
“The arrests carried out tonight are part of an ongoing and fast-paced investigation,” said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security. “It is important to note that we have no specific information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack.”
A joint FBI-New York Police Department task force feared Zazi may have been involved in a potential plot involving hydrogen peroxide-based explosives like those cited in an intelligence warning issued Monday, according to two other law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the investigation. Zazi denies any ties to al-Qaida or terrorism.
In supporting documents filed with the court, investigators say Zazi admitted to FBI agents last week that in 2008 he received weapons and explosives training from al-Qaida in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan.
The terror probe gathered momentum after Zazi rented a car and drove from Denver to New York, crossing into Manhattan on Sept. 10. Zazi said he went to New York to resolve some issues with a coffee cart he owns in Manhattan, then flew home to Denver. The FBI searched Zazi’s rental car and laptop during the New York trip and listened in on telephone conversations, according to the affidavits.
On Monday, FBI agents and police officers with search warrants seeking bomb materials searched three apartments and questioned residents in the Queens neighborhood where Zazi stayed.
A Sept. 11 search of Zazi’s rental car in New York turned up a laptop computer that contained an image of nine pages of handwritten notes, according to court documents filed with the arrest warrant. Those notes included instructions about how to build explosives and detonators, the affidavits state.
Zazi was asked about the notes during FBI interviews last week and said he knew nothing about them, the documents said. Zazi allegedly told federal agents that he must have unintentionally downloaded the notes along with a religious book. He said he deleted it within a few days after realizing it discussed jihad, the affidavit said.
However, federal agents suspect Zazi received the notes via e-mail.
Authorities have found images of the notes in two e-mail accounts with similar passwords. One of the accounts has a nine-digit password that is identical to the password for an e-mail account that Zazi told investigators this week was his, the affidavit said.
Authorities suspect Zazi controls both e-mail accounts that received copies of the handwritten notes, according to the affidavit.
An arrest warrant affidavit says FBI agents intercepted a phone conversation around Sept. 11 in which Afzali, a legal permanent resident from Afghanistan, told Zazi that he had spoken with authorities. “I was exposed to something yesterday from the authorities. And they came to ask me about your characters. They asked me about you guys,” Afzali told Zazi, according to the affidavit.
However, Afzali allegedly lied to authorities about that conversation when federal agents asked him about it Thursday, according to the affidavit.
The department says Mohammed Zazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was interviewed last week by the FBI, lied when asked if he knew anyone by the name of Afzali and said he didn’t. The FBI said it had wiretapped a conversation between Mohammed Zazi and Afzali during Najibullah Zazi’s visit to New York.
Wendy Aiello, a spokeswoman for Zazi’s defense team, says Zazi and his father were taken to FBI headquarters in Denver.
Zazi had been scheduled to go to the Federal Building in Denver on Saturday for a fourth straight day of FBI questioning. However, the meeting was canceled so Zazi could meet with his attorney, Aiello said.
The FBI searched Zazi’s apartment and his uncle and aunt’s home last week in suburban Denver. Authorities have not said what they found.
Zazi was born in Afghanistan in 1985, moved to Pakistan at age 7 and emigrated to the United States in 1999. He returned to Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 to visit his wife, according to his attorney, Arthur Folsom.
Associated Press writer Eileen Sullivan in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.