NEW YORK (AP) — They were former classmates at a New York high school, both on a mission to join the Taliban and fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
But when Zarein Ahmedzay and Najibullah Zazi arrived in Pakistan in the summer of 2008, two high-ranking al-Qaida operatives gave them another set of marching orders.
“They told us we would be more useful if we returned to New York City … to conduct operations,” Ahmedzay said Friday in a guilty plea that offered more chilling details of a foiled plot attack on the New York City subways last fall.
Asked by a judge in federal court in Brooklyn what kind of operations, he responded: “Suicide-bombing operations.”
The attacks were to coincide with Ramadan and target landmarks, but the plan was scaled back because the conspirators didn’t have enough homemade explosives.
The plea also marked the first time prosecutors named the al-Qaida operatives involved in the high-profile case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Knox identified them as Saleh al-Somali and Rashid Rauf, who were both killed in Pakistan. The U.S. Justice Department on Friday described al-Somali as the head of international operations for al-Qaida.
Al-Somali was killed in a drone strike in December. Rauf, a British militant linked to a jetliner bomb plot, was also killed in a Predator strike in November 2008.
Knox said Ahmedzay met with a third senior al-Qaida operative in a training camp in northern Waziristan in Pakistan. He has not been identified.
Prosecutors say the 25-year-old Ahmedzay — who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges — joined Zazi and Adis Medunjanin, another friend from their Queens high school, on the trip to Pakistan to seek terrorism training.
Zazi, a Colorado airport van driver, admitted this year that he tested bomb-making materials in a Denver suburb before traveling by car to New York with the intent of attacking the subway system to avenge U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
Ahmedzay, who had been licensed to drive a taxi in New York, said Friday that al-Qaida leadership encouraged the men to target “well-known structures” in New York to cause “maximum casualties.” He said they also decided that the attack should occur during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, between Aug. 22 to Sept. 20.
Ahmedzay quoted heavily from a jihad verse in the Quran and urged Americans to “stop supporting the war against Islam.”
“I’m thankful for myself that I didn’t harm anyone, but I feel someone else will do the same thing,” he said.
Prosecutors said the three settled on the subways after Zazi determined he could only make enough explosives for a smaller attack in time for Ramadan, and decided it would happen Sept. 14, 15 or 16.
Prosecutors say the attacks were modeled after the London transit system bombings in July 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 people and themselves in an attack on three subway trains and a bus.
The New York plot was disrupted in early September when police officials stopped Zazi’s car as it entered New York.
Last month, an Afghanistan-born imam linked to the suspects pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when asked about the men. He was sentenced to time served and ordered to leave the United States.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that the plot “makes clear we face a continued threat from al-Qaida and its affiliates overseas.”
“With three guilty pleas already and the investigation continuing, this prosecution underscores the importance of using every tool we have available to both disrupt plots against our nation and hold suspected terrorists accountable,” he said.
Defense attorney Michael Marinaccio declined to say whether Ahmedzay was cooperating with the investigation. But he added that by agreeing to plead guilty, “there’s a potential benefit to him.”
Ahmedzay and Medunjanin previously pleaded not guilty to charges they sought to join Zazi in what prosecutors described as three “coordinated suicide bombing attacks” on Manhattan subway lines. Medunjanin attorney Robert C. Gottlieb said Friday his client intends to go to trial.
“This case is much different as it pertains to Mr. Medunjanin,” said Gottlieb.
Officials have said a fourth suspect is in custody in Pakistan but have given no other details about him.
Associated Press writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report.