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Terror plots against transit systems feared

| Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009

DENVER -- Counterterrorism officials are warning mass transit systems around the nation to step up patrols because of fears an Afghanistan-born immigrant under arrest in Colorado may have been plotting to detonate backpack bombs aboard New York City trains.

Investigators say Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old shuttle van driver at the Denver airport, played a direct role in a terror plot that unraveled during a trip to New York City around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He made his first court appearance Monday and remains behind bars.

Zazi and two other defendants have not been charged with any terrorism counts, only the relatively minor offense of lying to the government. But the case could grow to include more serious charges as the investigation proceeds.

Publicly, law enforcement officials have repeatedly said they are unaware of a specific time or target for any attacks. Privately, officials speaking on condition of anonymity said investigators have worried most about the possible use of backpack bombs on New York City trains, similar to attacks carried out in London and Madrid.

Backpacks and cellphones were seized last week from apartments in Queens where Zazi visited.

In a bulletin issued Friday, the FBI and Homeland Security Department warned that improvised explosive devices are the most common tactic to blow up railroads and other mass transit systems overseas. And they noted incidents in which bombs were made with hydrogen peroxide.

In the bulletin, obtained by The Associated Press, officials recommended that transit systems conduct random sweeps at terminals and stations and that law enforcement make random patrols and board some trains and buses.

The effects of the warning were not immediately clear. New York's transit agency said it was in touch with an FBI-NYPD task force but wouldn't comment further.

The task force feared Zazi may have been involved in a potential plot involving hydrogen peroxide-based explosives, according to two law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Investigators said they found notes on bomb-making instructions that appear to match Zazi's handwriting and discovered his fingerprints on materials -- batteries and a scale -- that could be used to make explosives. He made a trip to Pakistan last year in which he received al-Qaida explosives and weapons training, the government said.

Zazi, a legal U.S. resident who immigrated in 1999, told the FBI that he must have unintentionally downloaded the notes on bomb-making as part of a religious book and that he deleted the book "after realizing that its contents discussed jihad."

A strange sequence of events began to unfold nearly two weeks ago when Zazi -- under surveillance by federal agents -- rented a car in Colorado and made a 1,600-mile trek across the heartland to New York. He told reporters that he went to New York to resolve an issue with a coffee cart.

He was briefly stopped entering the city as part of what was believed to be a routine drug check, and proceeded to his friend's place in Queens. Once there, his car was towed and authorities confiscated his computer. He was told by an NYPD informant that detectives were asking about him, and decided to cut the trip short and fly back to Colorado, authorities said.

Their surveillance blown and their main suspect flying back to Colorado, officials speeded up the investigation and initiated raids on several Queens apartments in a search for evidence of explosives.

Zazi and his 53-year-old father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, were arrested Saturday in Denver. Ahmad Wais Afzali, 37, was arrested in New York, where he is an imam at a mosque in Queens. The three are accused of making false statements to the government. If convicted, they face eight years in prison.

Mohammed Zazi and Afzali are accused of lying to FBI agents about calls between Denver and New York. Investigators said Afzali lied about a call in which he told Najibullah Zazi that he had spoken with authorities.

Zazi's father is accused of lying when he told authorities he didn't know anyone by the name of Afzali. The FBI said it recorded a conversation between Mohammed Zazi and Afzali.

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