A decade after his plot to detonate suicide bombs in New York City’s subways turned a nightmare scenario for straphangers into front-page news, Najibullah Zazi received a 10-year prison sentence in Brooklyn federal court Thursday that will lead to his release in days.
Zazi, 33, an Afghan from Queens who worked as a food vendor and airport shuttle driver before becoming an al-Qaida operative, was credited with quickly becoming a valuable cooperator in the war on terror after he was caught, and told U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie his days as a radical were over.
“I want to let you know I have tried my best to correct my horrific mistake by cooperating with the government,” he told Dearie. “I am not the same person. … I have a deeper knowledge of myself and understanding of the true meaning of Islam.”
“The question still lingers in my mind,” Dearie told him. “As one colleague stated, has he rejected Satan? I hope you have.”
Zazi, brought to the United States from war-torn Afghanistan at 14, was radicalized over the internet, according to his later testimony, and in 2008 traveled with two friends — Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin — to Pakistan, where they received training from al-Qaida and were sent back to the U.S. to conduct a terrorism operation.
They planned to set off three suicide bombs in the subways, and Zazi, whose family had moved to Colorado, consulted by email with an al-Qaida handler, prepared detonators and drove cross-country to New York with bomb supplies. But the three called off the plot when they became suspicious of surveillance.
Zazi was arrested Sept. 19, 2009. He, like Ahmedzay, decided to plead guilty to conspiracy and providing material support to al-Qaida and cooperate. Prosecutors said he testified against Medunjanin and provided intelligence and “extraordinary” assistance in other cases despite the risk of retaliation from al-Qaida.
With prison credits, Zazi’s lawyer said, he has already served his sentence and is expected to be released in days with federal witness protection. Ahmedzay was also sentenced to 10 years in December. Medunjanin, who was convicted, is serving a life sentence.
In court Thursday, Zazi sported a trimmed beard instead of the long, bushy one he had in 2009, wore a blue prison smock, and walked into the courtroom with a spring in his step. He told Dearie he had gotten his GED in prison and taken other courses, but his defense lawyer declined to describe his future plans.
In a 2017 letter to the judge that had never been released but was quoted by both Dearie and defense lawyer William Stampur, Zazi said that as a boy he felt blessed by the safety the United States provided — and was “devastated” by the Sept. 11 attacks — but later became a victim of the preachings of the late Anwar al-Awlaki, an American al-Qaida propagandist.
“Looking back I can see how gullible I was, actually living in an imaginary world,” he wrote, according to Stampur. “Your honor, the uneducated are perfect targets for the unscrupulous. They take historical facts and contort them to their agenda, to motivate people to their will.”
In his remarks to the judge, Zazi said he had used his time in prison to try to change himself. “I am very sorry,” he said. “… I ask for forgiveness.”
Dearie said before the sentencing he had looked out his window at the missing space where the Twin Towers stood until Sept. 11, 2001, and said he still wondered “how could this happen.”
“You went to school here,” he said. “You rooted for our local ball teams. You worked. You even paid your taxes. Then you turned on us.”
The judge said that despite a “healthy skepticism,” he was convinced by prosecutors and agents who worked with Zazi over the past decade that his cooperation merited a reward and that his mindset toward terrorism had changed.
“This once-unthinkable second chance has come your way,” Dearie said. “You have earned it.”
While he will get out of prison, the judge said, Zazi would be on supervised release — the term for monitoring by court probation officers — for the rest of his life. He ordered Zazi to accept mental health counseling and treatment if ordered, and said he would have to keep cooperating if requested.
John Riley covers courts in New York City for Newsday.
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