“Those who talk don’t know. And those who know don’t talk.”
It turns out that Inspector Clouseau might not have been in charge of the Zazi transit bombing plot investigation after all.
In fact — as Fairly Civil noted in the first posting on this case — there was every evidence for those with eyes to see and ears to listen that this was going to be a case of good investigation and timely preemption. [Extended excerpts from court documents follow below in this posting.]
You would never have known that from the news media, which followed a by-now check-the-box predictable pattern.
PART ONE — MEDIA MOCK, MOCK
Since in intelligence matters, people who actually know what’s going on don’t talk, and the people who do talk, usually don’t know, the media is reduced to flailing about, looking for a “hook” to “advance” the story.
The general direction — with a few notable and commendable exceptions, such as J.J. Green of Washington’s WTOP radio station — is to treat the counter-terrorism forces as overzealous, and the suspects as innocent folk (just like you and me) being viciously “profiled” and “eavesdropped” on.
Bewildered head-scratching. Early on in every disrupted plot, the news media raise their collective eyebrows over the fact that the authorities didn’t actually catch anybody with a lit fuse.
Harrumph!! Nothing actually went bang!
The unspoken premise is that these Keystone Cops, these clowns, are seeing phantoms. Usually, some marginal or has-been politician can be found who will indiscreetly weigh in with a sound-bite.
The Denver Post, for example, ran with this bit from former Sen. Gary Hart:
Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart said a Tuesday meeting with New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly left him doubtful that authorities have uncovered an al-Qaeda terrorist cell that was planning a major terrorist attack.
“He works very closely with the FBI. If he had just uncovered any major terror conspiracy I believe he would have told me,” Hart told The Denver Post on Wednesday. He met with Kelly in his role as vice chairman of the Homeland Security Council.
“We were talking about what we could do to better protect New York City,” Hart said.
Gosh, I know if I were police commissioner, I would just tell every random guy who had an appointment with me that terrorists were plotting to blow my city up. Especially former senators who as a general rule are real good at keeping their lips sealed.
People, Can We All Get Along? The “human interest” angle usually pops up fairly early, too. This is the part where the alleged terrorists are portrayed as brothers of all mankind, just trying to get along, being hassled by the profiler man. Ode to Joy comes to mind.
The Denver Post, no doubt feeling the weight of having an actual accused terrorist right here in the mile-high city [!!], sent a byte-stained wretch into the field to dig out this stolidly obtuse bit of gullible local color:
The 24-year-old Aurora man at the heart of a national terrorism investigation is a hard-working cabdriver who regularly attends prayer services and is working to put down roots in the United States.
In interviews on the phone and at his condominium Tuesday, Najibullah Zazi denied any terrorist ties.
“Calling me an extremist. What does that mean?” Zazi asked. “I’m just normal. I pray five times a day. I observe Ramadan.”
Oh, well, pardon us for interrupting your busy day, sir.
Not to be outdone, The New York Times scrambled to follow the Denver paper and made it official with this late edition bit of sensitive reporting:
“I have nothing to do with this,” said the man, Najibullah Zazi, 25, who was reached by telephone in Colorado on Monday and Tuesday. “This looks like it’s going toward me, which is more shocking every hour.”
Well, I know I was shocked. The Times’ “kicker” (ending bit) in the same story left us fairly sobbing with outrage at the horrid conditions those mean old profiling, rights-abusing agents left in the wake of their outrageous Queens raid:
At one raid site, a fifth-floor apartment on 41st Avenue, a tenant, Naiz Khan, spoke of Mr. Zazi, who stayed overnight there on Thursday. He said that he had barely spoken with Mr. Zazi on his recent visit but that they had been closer when they were students at Flushing High School. He said he was committed to helping the F.B.I.
“Anything they need, I will help them out,” Mr. Khan said on Tuesday, standing amid a messy jumble of belongings. “It’s my responsibility.”
That a man can rise to such selflessness, “standing amid a messy jumble” … well, it touches one’s heart.
News desk, get me a pissing match! The oldest, greasiest card in the journaliste pack-o-tricks is the [excuse my French] “pissing match.”
It’s a great way to fill a factual void.
Any beat reporter worth his or her salt knows how to start one of these. Find an anonymous “source” from the party of the first part who will likely criticize the party of the second part. Ask that person a clever question [“Say, what do you really think about the way the Second Department handled that search?”]. Take the answer [“Those idiots from 2D couldn’t find their ass in the dark with a flashlight in both hands!”] to another “source” in the party of the second part for “reaction” [“Hate to bother you, but I think it’s only fair to get your reaction to something I heard today from an official over in 1D”].
This is good for several days worth of “reportage.”
The New York Daily News sent the first hack out to stir this angle up:
Raids on three Queens apartments may have derailed a terror plot, but they caused a rift between the NYPD and FBI officials who wanted to get more evidence, sources said Tuesday.
Although the NYPD’s top spokesman denied a rift, sources said the FBI wanted to hold off to determine exactly what a Denver-based terror cell was planning.
A frenzy followed.
Look, maybe mistakes were made, but my experience has been after having interviewed many, many agents and officials who work in this area is that one can always find those who will criticize other agencies, but over the long run those working at the point of the spear pull together and put their differences aside. I personally doubt very much that the JTTF is riven with “fissiparous tendencies.”
And by the way, if you want to see a snake pit of back-biting rifts, just visit any newsroom. Talk about pissing matches.
And further by the way, precisely when would the journalistes — the editors and reporters — have moved against such a plot? When would they interrupt bomb-makers? And would they turn their backs on “aspirational” bombers, hoping that they would never become “operational” and actually blow something up?
Hmm, Maybe — But Just Maybe — They Have A Little Something Here. As more evidence emerges , the media fall back on ponderous ruminations that the plot was disrupted before the bumbling plotters were able to create a serious threat. Curiously, that is not a good thing. A popular variant is that the FBI (or other agency) undercover agents who infiltrated the cell of would-be terrorists were the true “motivating” force who pushed a bunch of innocent clowns along the road to perdition.
Thus, The New York Times reported that authorities, possibly, maybe, kinda-sorta had some proof:
The central figure in what authorities describe as a widening inquiry into a possible plot to detonate explosives in the United States had been trained in weapons and explosives in Pakistan and, according to court papers released Sunday, had made nine pages of handwritten notes on how to make and handle bombs.
But the paper-of-record felt compelled to add a bit more wee-wee match “tension” to the brew, and insert the ritual “the plot had not taken shape” clause:
In a sense, the case reflects the tension that has grown between intelligence and law enforcement agencies since the September 2001 attacks. Some intelligence officials are prepared to disrupt a group as soon as its activities are discovered, while more case-oriented law enforcement agencies seek to surreptitiously track or infiltrate a suspect group, uncovering all of its members, until there is compelling evidence to charge the plotters with a crime.
In this case, officials say, Mr. Zazi and his confederates were apparently deterred before any plot had a chance to take shape and before investigators were able to clearly understand what the men were planning. That left prosecutors to charge the three men with proxy offenses of making false statements rather than crimes directly involving terrorism.
This is wool-gathering pabulum. If you think that there have been tensions between law enforcement and intelligence agencies “since the September 2001 attacks,” you should recall the real “Chinese Wall” that existed between them before that infamous date.
Holy S**t, Batman, This was real! Finally, comes acceptance.
Bad people really do want to hurt us.
Our counter-terrorism agencies really do catch many (one would hope most and wish all) of them before they can do us harm.
So, today, The New York Times grudgingly leads with the news that the case of Najibullah Zazi “may” be different.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, senior government officials have announced dozens of terrorism cases that on closer examination seemed to diminish as legitimate threats. The accumulating evidence against a Denver airport shuttle driver suggests he may be different, with some investigators calling his case the most serious in years.
Gosh, authorities must be gratified that the experts in the media now agree that this is serious!
Still, the paper can’t resist pulling lint out of the navel of so-called “aspirational” cases, those where nothing went boom because undercover agents defused the plot. Buried at the very end of this pompous fugue of faux journalistic “expertise” in terrorism investigations is a typical media “J’accuse!” format: an agency’s “admission” with a “but” qualifier.
What could be more fair?
F.B.I. officials have admitted that such cases are “aspirational” rather than operational. But they note that if the Sept. 11 hijackers — some of whom were unsophisticated recent arrivals to the United States — had been interrupted early on, they might have looked amateurish and the notion that they could turn jetliners into missiles far-fetched.
PART TWO — FOR THE RECORD
So, what evidence does the government have? Well, keeping in mind that prosecutors are not going to put on the table more than they need to, and using a bit of common sense and understanding about how real investigations (as opposed to media imaginings) actually work, the following is a bare minimum. And chilling.
On the point of competence, if you read these filings (and others quoted in other posts) carefully, you will see several junctures at which judicial authorization was obtained. These indicate that at those points the investigators had other evidence not cited here which persuaded a judge to approve the investigative steps. In other words, 1 + 1 = 3.
These excerpts come from the indictment and a memorandum of law opposing release of bail in the case of United States v. Najibullah Zazi in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Docket No. 09-CR-663:
NAJIBULLAH ZAZI, together with others, did knowingly, intentionally, and without lawful authority conspire to use one or more weapons of mass destruction, to wit: explosive bombs and other similar explosive devices, against persons and property within the United States…
In furtherance of the conspiracy, Zazi received detailed bomb-making instructions in Pakistan, purchased components of improvised explosive devices, and traveled to New York City on September 10, 2009 in furtherance of his criminal plans….
A. Trip to Pakistan
Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) records show that on August 28, 2008, Zazi and others flew from Newark Liberty International Airport to Peshawar, Pakistan via Geneva, Switzerland and Doha, Qatar. They traveled on Qatar Airlines Flight Number 84.
Zazi is associated with three email accounts (“Email Account 1,” “Email Account 2,” and “Email Account 3”) that were active during his time in Pakistan. One of the accounts is directly subscribed to Zazi, and all three accounts contain slight variations of the same password. The government will establish at trial that these accounts were used in furtherance of Zazi’s efforts to manufacture explosive devices. Among other things, during a consent search of two of three of the accounts, agents found jpeg images of nine pages of handwritten notes containing formulations and instructions regarding the manufacture and handling of different kinds of explosives. Based on email header information, these images had been emailed to Email Accounts 2 and 3 in early December 2008, while Zazi was in Pakistan. As discussed below, the same notes were transferred onto ZAZI’s laptop computer in June 2009.
The notes contained specifications for, among other explosives, the explosive Triacetone Triperoxide (“TATP”), which is the explosive used in the 2005 London train bombings and intended to be used in the 2001 “shoe bomb” plot by Richard Reid. The three components of TATP are hydrogen peroxide, acetone and a strong acid (such as hydrochloric acid). The handwritten notes mention that acetone is found in nail polish remover and that hydrogen peroxide can be found in “Hair Salon – 29-30%.” The notes discuss formulations for mixing hydrogen peroxide with flour, and list ghee oil as a type of fuel that can be used to help initiate the explosive device.
Zazi flew from Peshawar back to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York (“JFK”) on January 15, 2009 aboard Qatar Airlines Flight Number 83.
B. Research and Purchase of Explosive Device Components
Prior to traveling to Pakistan, Zazi lived in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. Within days of returning from Pakistan, Zazi moved to Aurora, Colorado. Zazi resided with family members on East Ontario Drive in Aurora from January 2009 until the end of July 2009. Zazi’s father, Mohamed Wali Zazi (“Wali”) moved from New York to Aurora in July 2009, and the two ultimately moved into a residence on East Smoky Hill Road in Aurora on or about July 31.
A lawfully-authorized search of Zazi’s laptop computer reflects that Zazi transferred the bomb-making instruction notes onto his laptop and/or accessed the notes on his laptop in June and July 2009. The FBI’s search of the laptop also reflects that Zazi conducted several internet searches for hydrochloric acid during the summer of 2009, and “bookmarked” a site on two different browsers for “Lab Safety for Hydrochloric Acid.” Zazi also searched a beauty salon website for hydrocide and peroxide.
During July and August 2009, Zazi and others associated with Zazi purchased unusually large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products from beauty supply stores in the Denver metropolitan area. Surveillance videos and receipts reflect that on July 25, 2009, Zazi purchased six bottles of “Liquid Developer Clairoxide” from a beauty supply store in Aurora. This product contains high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. The videos and receipts also establish that on August 28, 2009, Zazi purchased 12 32-oz bottles of “Ms. K Liquid 40 Volume” — another hydrogen peroxide based product — from the same store. Records from a nearby hotel in Aurora reflect that Zazi checked into a suite in the hotel on the same day. The suite included a stove.
The evidence will further establish that individuals associated with Zazi purchased unusual quantities of hydrogen and acetone products in July, August and September 2009 from three different beauty supply stores in and around Aurora. One person purchased a one-gallon container of a product containing 20% hydrogen peroxide, as well as an eight ounce bottle of acetone. A second person purchased an acetone product in approximately the first week of September. A third person purchased 32-ounce bottles of Ion Sensitive Scalp Developer, a product containing high levels of hydrogen peroxide, on approximately three occasions during the summer of 2009.
C. Travel to New York
On September 6 and 7, 2009, Zazi rented the same suite at the same hotel in Aurora where he had stayed on August 28. The hotel surveillance camera captured Zazi checking-in to the hotel at 2:32 p.m. on September 6. Subsequent FBI testing for explosives and chemical residue in the suite revealed the presence of acetone residue in the vent above the stove. Importantly, the bomb-making notes contemplate heating the components in order to make them highly concentrated.
Also on September 6 and 7, Zazi attempted to communicate on multiple occasions with another individual — each communication more urgent in tone than the last — seeking to correct [sic, probably “seeking correct”] mixtures of ingredients to make explosives. Included in the communications were requests related to flour and ghee oil, which are two ingredients listed in the bomb-making instructions. Zazi repeatedly emphasized in the communications that he needed the answers right away.
A lawfully-authorized search of Zazi’s laptop computer reflects that the next day, September 8, Zazi searched the internet for locations of a home improvement store within zip code 11354, the zip code for the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. He then searched the home improvement store’s website for muriatic acid, which is a diluted version of hydrochloric acid and, as discussed, could constitute the third component of TATP, which is comprised of hydrogen peroxide, acetone and a strong acid like hydrochloric acid. Zazi viewed four different types of muriatic acid. He viewed one particular type — Klean Green Safer Muriatic Acid — multiple times. This product claims to have lower fumes and is safer to handle than standard muriatic acid.
The same day as the home improvement store internet searches, Zazi rented a car. The next day, September 9, Zazi started driving from Colorado to New York City, taking with him the laptop computer (which, as noted, contained the bomb-making instructions). The car rental contract reflects that Zazi was supposed to return the car in New York on September 14, 2009.
Zazi arrived in New York on the afternoon of September 10 and traveled to Flushing, Queens. Lawfully-authorized intercepts of Zazi’s cell phone reflect that Zazi became suspicious, and then learned directly, that law enforcement officers were tracking his activities. Zazi ultimately purchased an airline ticket and returned to Denver on September 12.
Zazi spent the night of September 10 at a residence in Queens. During the execution of a search warrant at the Queens residence, agents found, among several other items, an electronic weight scale in the closet. The scale and batteries both contained Zazi’s fingerprints. In addition, during a lawfully-authorized search of Zazi’s laptop, agents found the images of the handwritten bomb-making instructions discussed above. Experts in the FBI’s explosives unit have opined that the scale would be suitable for performing several of the procedures outline in the instructions. With respect to TATP, a scale such as the one recovered would be required to weigh the hydrogen peroxide and other precursor chemicals in determining the proper concentrations and ratios. These procedures are outlined in the bomb-making notes.
After Zazi’s laptop was searched in New York, and after Zazi returned to Colorado with his laptop, agents executed a search warrant at his Aurora address. Agents recovered the same laptop that had previously been searched and found that the hard drive had since been removed.