Volume 22, Number 32 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 18 - 24, 2009
Former coffee-cart vendor could face more charges
By Mary Reinholz
Federal prosecutors may seek additional charges against suspected terrorist Najibullah Zazi, the bearded 24-year-old Afghan immigrant and former Stone St. vendor who once sold donuts and coffee minutes from ground zero. The former Queens resident was indicted Sept. 23 on a single count of conspiring unsuccessfully to attack New York with weapons of mass destruction: i.e. homemade bombs he allegedly planned to construct out of beauty supplies and detonate around the eighth anniversary of 9/11.
On Dec. 3, Zazi emerged from solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center and sat motionless in Brooklyn Federal Court, looking eerily calm in his navy-blue prison smock during a brief status hearing before Chief Justice Raymond J. Dearie on the tenth floor.
“I think it’s very likely there will be additional charges,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Knox in his remarks to the judge. “We are still evaluating evidence. My expectation is that we will be seeking a superseding indictment.”
He did not say what the new charges would be. But Knox, who heads the Violent Crimes and Terrorism Division in the Eastern District, described the discovery evidence obtained from search warrants as “voluminous” and ongoing, noting it included material on residences, e-mail contacts and classified information on Zazi and his alleged associates “that would take about three months to evaluate and transcribe” from Arabic dialects.
Judge Dearie set another hearing for Feb. 16 and said the trial could begin in the fall. Thus far, Zazi is the only defendant charged in the foiled plot in which authorities said he received “detailed instructions” on improvised explosive devices at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, where his wife and children apparently live.
Shortly after a late-2008 trip to Pakistan, according to a federal detention memo, Zazi relocated to Colorado in January 2009. In the summer, he and several other unidentified individuals bought large quantities of hair and nail products from Denver area beauty supply stores. The products contained the same kind of chemicals used in the deadly 2005 London train bombings and in Richard Reid’s aborted 2001 “shoe bomb” plot, according to court records. Zazi allegedly mixed the chemicals at a Colorado hotel with a stove, where F.B.I. agents found residue of acetone in a stove vent, authorities said.
Zazi then drove at high speed to New York on Sept. 9 in a car rental which allegedly contained a laptop computer with bomb-making instructions. His father — a onetime New York City cab driver — along with a Queens imam were indicted for lying to authorities, as was Zazi. Both of the older men are now free on bail.
Defense lawyer G. Michael Dowling, peppered with questions from a gaggle of reporters and TV crews outside the federal courthouse, expressed surprise that Zazi could be hit with a superseding indictment, noting he was already facing a life sentence. Asked by Downtown Express what he thought of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s description of the case as the largest and most significant since the 9/11 hijacking conspiracy, Dowling appeared taken aback.
“He said that?” the Denver lawyer mused. “That’s not cool.”
In an unrelated terror case, Manhattan Federal Judge John G. Koeltl set Feb. 5 as the date to hear arguments from both sides regarding his apparent “mandate” from a higher court to re-sentence disbarred radical lawyer Lynne Stewart. Stewart is now serving jail time at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Park Row for passing messages from an imprisoned Muslim cleric to his violent followers in Egypt. In 2006, Koeltl sentenced Stewart to 28 months, which one of three judges in the U.S. Appellate Court, Second Circuit, described as “breathtakingly low.” The Appellate panel upheld her 2005 conviction for materially aiding terrorism and ordered Koeltl, her trial judge, to reconsider her sentence.
About 200 of Stewart’s supporters gathered in Koeltl’s courtroom Dec. 2, standing and cheering loudly when Stewart appeared. One of her lawyers, Joshua Dratel, argued that all that Koeltl needed to do was “clarify” his original sentence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dember said little during the hearing. Afterward, Stewart’s attorney son Jeffrey, said that his 70-year-old mother, now recovering from breast cancer, would soon undergo gall bladder surgery, which he described as “minor but necessary.”