Former New York City taxi driver Zarein Ahmedzay testified at the trial that, while he and his two friends Najibullah Zazi and Medunjanin sat together in a car outside a neighborhood mosque, the three former schoolmates from Queens discussed their horrific plan. “Allah doesn’t like only talk about something and not doing it,” Ahmedzay remembered admonishing his friends. “We then made a covenant to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahedeen against American forces,” Ahmedzay testified on Monday at the trial.
That decision initiated a terrorist plot that would have been one of the most catastrophic events since 9/11 — a plan to strap on suicide-bomb vests and detonate them inside Manhattan subways. The men “were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them — men, women and children,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam said in the prosecution’s opening statements. “These men came so close — within days of carrying out this attack.” Medunjanin, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and several other charges.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Robert Gottlieb accused the United States government of engaging in “inflammatory rhetoric” about al-Qaida and terrorism to prevent the jurors “from seeing the truth about this case.” While admitting that Medunjanin had tried to assist the Taliban’s fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the lawyer denied his client ever agreed to kill American civilians for al-Qaida. “The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist,” Gottlieb said. “Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb the New York City subways.”
Both Zazi and Ahmedzay have pleaded guilty and made a deal with the government to testify against Medunjanin in the hopes of obtaining leniency at sentencing. At press time, Zazi was scheduled to testify that – while he was living in Colorado – he concocted explosive devices and began driving to New York City in September of 2009 to perpetrate the attack. Zazi was arrested after backing out of the plot and fleeing back to Denver.
Ahmedzay, a 27-year-old Afghan, told jurors this week that Medunjanin encouraged him to radicalize his Muslim beliefs by following the U.S.-born extremist imam Anwar al-Awlaki. The witness recalled listening to downloads of al-Awlaki’s anti-American sermons on his iPod, admitting, “I became very radical in my views.”
In 2008, the men traveled to Pakistan, where they conferred with al-Qaida recruiters who advised them that they would be more likely to succeed at a suicide mission in the United States, Ahmedzay said. The men were then driven to a distant secret location protected by 20-foot mud walls., where English-speaking terrorists trained them to use grenades, AK-47s and other weapons, he related.
Ahmedzay also recounted a meeting in Pakistan at which the three friends agreed to become martyrs. “I told them we have come here to give our lives,” Ahmedzay testified, “and asked them, ‘Are we going to accept it?’”
Ahmedzay recalled how he returned to New York and drove his taxi around the city in early 2009 to case potential targets for a terrorist attack, including Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and the New York Stock Exchange. The conspirators also considered hitting Penn Station or city movie theaters before deciding to focus on an attack on the subways during Ramadan, he said.
Al-Qaida had assured the three men that committing a small-scale attack would be considered a success, Ahmedzay stated. He described one terror operative as expressing his regret that other homegrown terrorists “have failed because they tried to do something big, and ended up doing nothing.”