By Ben Conery
The Justice Department brought charges Thursday in three unrelated bombing plots, but in only one - the case of a 24-year-old man accused of taking part in an al Qaeda plot to unleash a bombing campaign against Americans - was the public in any potential danger.
In the other two cases, two men were caught in stings by the FBI. Unbeknownst to the men in both investigations, the FBI made sure the bombs they planted were fakes.
In the most serious case, Najibullah Zazi, an airport shuttle driver from Denver, was indicted Thursday in New York on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction - explosive bombs - against persons or property in the United States. He faces life in prison if convicted. The new charge represents a serious escalation of the legal issues facing Mr. Zazi, who was charged last weekend with the far less-serious charge of lying to FBI agents investigating a purported al Qaeda bombing plot involving several people in the U.S. and Pakistan.
"We are investigating a wide range of leads related to this alleged conspiracy, and we will continue to work around the clock to ensure that anyone involved is brought to justice," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. "We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted, but as always, we remind the American public to be vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to law enforcement."
The other two cases played out far differently from that of Mr. Zazi, but were similar to each other. In those cases, the FBI learned about two men espousing a desire to engage in jihad and sent undercover agents to pose as conspirators.
In Illinois, 29-year-old Michael Finton told undercover agents that he wanted to attack America. Agents gave him a phony bomb that Mr. Finton planted at courthouse, authorities said.
Mr. Finton is charged with one count of attempted murder of federal officers or employees and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He faces life in prison if convicted.
In Dallas, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, 19, was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. In tactics similar to Mr. Finton's case, FBI agents posing as terrorists approached Mr. Smadi after learning of his desire for holy war, authorities said.
Ultimately, the FBI said, agents gave him a phony bomb that he planted at a 60-story glass office building in downtown Dallas.
The investigation into Mr. Zazi was far more complex.
Products more closely associated with hairdressers than holy warriors were key to authorities building a case against Mr. Zazi, federal authorities said in court papers filed with an indictment of Mr. Zazi that were unsealed Thursday.
Federal authorities said that surveillance video footage and receipts show Mr. Zazi and others who have not been identified publicly bought from beauty supply stores across Denver large quantities of products containing hydrogen peroxide and nail polish remover.
In one episode, authorities say, Mr. Zazi, a legal permanent resident from Afghanistan who worked as an airport shuttle driver in Denver, bought a dozen 32-ounce bottles of a hydrogen-peroxide product called Ms. K Liquid 40 Volume, which is used in hair coloring.
Mr. Zazi appeared Thursday in federal court in Denver; authorities asked that he be denied bail and sent to New York to face charges. A decision could be announced as soon as Friday.
Mr. Zazi's father and a New York imam have also been charged with lying to the FBI, but neither man has been linked to the purported plot and both have been released on bail.
The imam, 37-year-old Ahmad Wais Afzali, was released Thursday on a $1.5 million bond. His parents' home in the New York borough of Queens was posted as collateral.
"If you don't come back to court, they are going to be ruined financially," the judge told Mr. Afzali, who authorities say tipped off Mr. Zazi about the investigation and then denied doing so to FBI agents.
Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53, was previously ordered released on an unsecured $50,000 bond. He is accused of lying to investigators about discussions he had with Mr. Afzali.
While the scope of the purported plot is still not clear, prosecutors filed documents in the case Thursday that provide the most complete accounting to date of the government's accusations. They indicate the case against Najibullah Zazi was built through surveillance, wiretaps, seized receipts and forensic analysis.
Investigators had Mr. Zazi under surveillance when he drove a rental car from Colorado to New York two weeks ago. Mr. Zazi had lived in Queens before moving to Colorado in January.
Authorities later seized Mr. Zazi's laptop computer from the rental car and found a photograph on it of nine pages of handwritten instructions about bomb making. The FBI said a handwriting expert determined that Mr. Zazi wrote the notes, an accusation he denied to investigators, which led authorities to bring the original lying charges against him.
Court records indicate the notes contained instructions for making triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, which is the type of explosive used in the 2005 London train bombing and what shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to used on an airplane in 2001.
Investigators said they also kept Mr. Zazi under surveillance when he rented a hotel suite in Colorado on Sept. 6-7. Authorities think Mr. Zazi used the suite's stove to cook the components together to make a bomb; agents said they found chemical residue in a vent above the stove.
It appears Mr. Zazi was not successful in making a bomb.
Intercepted communication - court records do not indicate what type - show that Mr. Zazi repeatedly attempted to make contact with another person "to correct the mixture of ingredients to make explosives."
Court records indicate "each communication more urgent in tone than the last. Zazi repeatedly emphasized in the communications that he needed the answers right away."
Timeline of an alleged terror plot
Posted Friday, Sep. 25, 2009
The FBI discovered Hosam Maher Husein Smadi among an online group of extremists that had been "joined" by an FBI agent. Eventually, that agent and two others communicated with Smadi over a period of several months, according to a federal arrest warrant affidavit. Many of the contacts were made online using a Hotmail account, and the statements have been translated from Arabic, the affidavit says.
March 19: Smadi tells one of the undercover agents, "I truly say it, that my dream is to be among God's soldiers, first for the support of Islam and my beloved Sheik Usama, may God give him long life. I don't know what is in me, but I love him as I love my father. ... By God who created me, there will not be a retreat at all, even if they take me to Guantanamo for the rest of my life."
March 29: Smadi tells the agent, "God is most great. We shall attack them in their very own homes. Brother, by God, we shall attack them in a manner that hurts, an attack that shakes the world. Oh Brother, let the backsliders know that the time for their destruction has come."
April 4: The undercover agent offers Smadi alternatives to terror, "You know that your desire for Jihad is a serious and top secret matter. ... Then, my question to you is, what Jihad do you seek? Is it the Jihad using your person in the battle against the infidels and the enemies of Islam or the Jihad of giving money and assistance, or the Jihad of a soul that seeks perfection."
April 7: Smadi responds to the agent's question, "I shall expel the Jews from the land of holy Jerusalem, land of the two tributaries (Iraq), and Iraq. We shall destroy all the Romans and all the religion's enemies. I shall kill and behead the backslider operatives in the Levant and the land of Muslims. Do you know what my reward is? It is the reward from God the King, God Almighty."
April 22: Smadi further clarifies his plans, this time to a second undercover agent, "... to sacrifice in person is the best type of Jihad."
May 12: Smadi tells the second agent, "I want to destroy ... targets ... everything that helps America on its war on Arabs will be targeted."
June 24: Smadi meets with the second agent at a Dallas hotel and explains that he wants to bomb credit-card companies, military recruitment centers or Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. "We will take it inside the building .. and with God's permission ... it will be a strike to the economy."
July 16: Smadi contacts the first agent and tells him he has changed his mind about the airport. "... I have decided to change the target. ... God willing, the strike will be certain and strong. It will shake the currently weak economy in the State and the American nation because this bank is one of the largest banks in this city." Then he writes: "Name of the city: DALLAS. Name of the state: TEXAS. Name of the bank: WELLS FARGO." He goes on, "The bank's exterior is made of glass. The bank has billions of dollars. Let's say that the bank has collapsed and they took the money out. The losses will be excessive in credit card information. Millions of people would incur losses: unemployment, poverty, hunger, and a strike to the head of the government. Don't forget the psychological impacts for the loss of this beautiful building."
Aug. 22: Smadi tells the first agent that he has made his final decision, Fountain Place. "The first target is a commercial center and contains bank branches. ... Let us rely on God. Lord, give us success and overshadow our enemy. Amen."
Aug. 26: Smadi meets with the second agent at a Dallas hotel to discuss logistics and timing. "What I discovered what that this building, my dear sir, is the same building as September 11 in New York. ... That it is a trade building."
Sept. 20: Smadi tells the first agent he is ready. "On this day, I tell you that I am ready to receive the gift."
Sept. 24: Smadi drives to Dallas to meet the second agent. He picks up a 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac that he believes contains a bomb and drives through downtown Dallas to Fountain Place. He parks the vehicle in the garage directly beneath the building, sets the device's "timer," locks the car and walks away. He gets into a car with the second agent, and they drive several blocks away. Smadi dialed a cell phone he believed would remotely detonate the bomb and was placed under arrest.
Valerie Richardson contributed to this report from Denver.
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