Najibullah Zazi told a federal jury that he and two friends made an oath about five years ago to leave their Queens neighborhood and "fight alongside the Taliban" after listening to the recorded sermons of radical Muslim clerics.
The men had decided that complaining about American intervention in Afghanistan wasn't enough, he said.
"We decided we were not doing our jobs," Zazi said. "We shouldn't just point fingers."
At that time, he said, "My view was that 9/11, who was behind it, was America itself."
The 26-year-old former Colorado air shuttle driver, his long beard cut short from the time of his 2009 arrest, was testifying for the first time since his 2009 arrest at the trial of Adis Medunjanin, his alleged accomplice in what authorities have called one of the most frightening near-miss plots since the 9/11 attack.
Medunjanin, 27, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges.
Prosecutors allege that Zazi, Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to try to join the Taliban, but were instead recruited by al-Qaida operatives for a suicide mission on U.S. soil. Ahmedzay, who has also pleaded guilty, testified on Monday that the three former high school classmates made a pact "to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahedeen against American forces."
Zazi, who used beauty supplies to try and cook up explosives in a Colorado hotel room, was stopped shortly before the eighth anniversary in a traffic stop after driving cross-country to New York City. He was arrested days later after returning to Colorado.
He pleaded guilty to the plot to strap on suicide bomb vests and detonate them inside Manhattan subways in 2010. He and Ahmedzay agreed to testify against Medunjanin in a bid for leniency.
The men "were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them - men, women and children," Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam said in opening statements. "These men came so close - within days of carrying out this attack."
In his opening on Monday, defense attorney Robert Gottlieb accused the government of using "inflammatory rhetoric" about al-Qaida and terrorism to prevent jurors "from seeing the truth about this case." The lawyer conceded his client had sought to support the Taliban's struggle against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but denied he ever agreed to kill American civilians for al-Qaida.
"The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist," he said. "Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb the New York City subways."
Ahmedzay was the government's first witness on Monday, offering a detailed account of how he went from being a New York city cab driver who was ambivalent about the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to a would-be suicide bomber bent on avenging it.
The witness, a 27-year-old of Afghan descent, told jurors that Medunjanin encouraged him to follow a more radical form of Islam preached by U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He recalled listening to downloads of al-Awlaki's anti-American screeds on his iPod, admitting, "I became very radical in my views."
The men traveled in 2008 to Pakistan, where they met al-Qaida recruiters who told them they would be better suited for a suicide mission in the United States, the witness said. They were driven 10 hours away to a hideout protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades, AK-47s and other weapons, he said.
Ahmedzay also recounted a meeting there when the three agreed to become martyrs. Terror operatives encouraged the men to complete the mission before the end of George W. Bush's second term as president, he said.
"I told them we have come here to give our lives," Ahmedzay testified, "and asked them, 'Are we going to accept it?'" He recalled returning to New York City and using his cab to drive around the city in early 2009 and casing potential targets for a terrorist attack, including Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange. The conspirators also considered striking Penn Station or city movie theaters before settling on attacking the subways during Ramadan, he said.
Al-Qaida had told the men that pulling off a small-scale attack - even using guns instead of bombs to slaughter innocent New Yorkers - would be considered a success, Ahmedzay said.
He recalled one operative lamenting that other homegrown terrorists "have failed because they tried to do something big, and ended up doing nothing."
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