Counterterrorism officials have linked one of the nation's most wanted terrorists to last year's thwarted plot to bomb the New York City subway system, authorities said Wednesday.
Current and former counterterrorism officials said top al-Qaida operative Adnan Shukrijumah met with one of the would-be suicide bombers in a plot that Attorney General Eric Holder called one of the most dangerous since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have named Shukrijumah in a draft terrorism indictment but on Wednesday the Justice Department was still discussing whether to cite his role. Some officials feared that the extra attention might hinder efforts to capture him.
Shukrijumah's involvement shows how important the subway bombing plot was to al-Qaida's senior leadership. Intelligence officials believe Shukrijumah is one of the top candidates to become al-Qaida's next head of external operations, the man in charge of planning attacks worldwide.
Current and former counterterrorism officials discussed the case on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it.
Shukrijumah, 34, has eluded the FBI for years. The Saudi-born terrorist studied at a community college in Florida, but when the FBI showed up to arrest him as a material witness to a terrorism case in 2003, he already had left the country. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Intelligence officials began unraveling the subway plot last year, when U.S. intelligence intercepted an e-mail from an account that al-Qaida had used in a recent terrorist plot, officials said. The e-mail discussed bomb-making techniques and was sent to an address in Denver, setting off alarms within the CIA and FBI from Islamabad to the U.S.
Najibullah Zazi and two friends were arrested in September 2009 before, prosecutors said, they could carry out a trio of suicide bombings in Manhattan. Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay have pleaded guilty and admitted planning to detonate homemade bombs on the subway during rush hour. A third man, Adis Medunjanin, awaits trial.
A fourth suspect, a midlevel al-Qaida operative known as Ahmed, traded the e-mails with Zazi, who was frantically trying to perfect his bomb making recipe, officials said. The U.S. wants to bring the Pakistani man to the U.S. for trial on charges that are not yet public.
Pakistani officials also have arrested a fifth person, known as Afridi, who worked with Ahmed, officials said.
The FBI and U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn had no comment Wednesday.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), released a statement saying: “Unfortunately al-Qaida is still actively plotting to hurt America by targeting New York. When we thwart them in one way, they try to harm us in another. We can never let our guard down, particularly in New York.”
The meeting with Shukrijumah is among many new details officials revealed about how the men hooked up with al-Qaida. The new account provides a rare glimpse into al-Qaida's recruiting process.
The trio's lengthy odyssey took them from their homes in Queens to the mountainous, lawless frontier in northwest Pakistan, the front line of the U.S. war on terrorism.
Prosecutors have said the men, motivated by their anger at the U.S. war in Afghanistan, traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, in the summer of 2008 to fight against U.S. forces.
The men stayed at the house of Zazi's uncle before splitting up, officials told the AP. Zazi remained in Peshawar while Ahmedzay and Medunjanin headed into Afghanistan to a Taliban stronghold where they hoped to join the fight against the Americans, officials said.
But Ahmedzay and Medunjanin never made it. They were stopped at a roadblock and briefly detained by Pakistani police who were suspicious of the Ahmedzay's Western looks and their U.S. passports. The two men talked their way out of the bind, however, and Pakistani police never contacted the U.S. about it, officials said.
Undeterred, the men regrouped in Peshawar and were recruited to meet an al-Qaida facilitator at local mosque in Peshawar. While al-Qaida was eager to recruit Americans, the group was also deeply suspicious of the trio and wanted to make sure they were not U.S. spies.
Once they passed that initial test, Ahmed drove them to North Waziristan and delivered them to a rudimentary terrorist camp. The three received weapons training, but al-Qaida had bigger plans for the men than the Afghanistan front line.
Salah al-Somali, then the head of external operations, and Rashid Rauf, a British militant linked to a 2006 jetliner bomb plot, explained to the three men that they were more useful as suicide bombers in the United States.
It was at that camp that counterterrorism officials believe Ahmedzay, and perhaps the other two men, met Shukrijumah, one of al-Qaida's up-and-coming figures. In 2004 then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called Shukrijumah a "clear and present danger" to the United States. Captured terrorist Abu Zubaydah told U.S. authorities that Shukrijumah was among the most likely candidates to attack the U.S. or Europe.
The trio completed about two weeks of training and left the camp with the promise of returning. But only Zazi made the trip back to the Waziristan to take a course on explosives.
Zazi flew to New York in early 2009 and moved to Denver, armed with bomb-making notes from Pakistan. Unlike the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks they chose the target, not Osama bin Laden.
The e-mails that tipped off U.S. intelligence triggered "Operation High Rise," an FBI investigation that had to come together within days. Agents scrambled as Zazi sped toward New York on Sept. 9, armed with about 2 pounds of the powerful explosive TATP.
He was stopped on the George Washington Bridge, but authorities failed to find the TATP stashed in a bag in the trunk. Spooked after the traffic stop, Zazi gave the TATP to Ahmedzay, who flushed it down the toilet.
That week, the FBI raided the homes of all three friends, bringing a swift end to the plot.