A Saudi American al-Qaeda operative based in Pakistan personally directed a failed plot to bomb New York City’s subway last September, federal authorities charged Wednesday, asserting that the same al-Qaeda unit helped plan an attack that was thwarted last year in Britain.
Newly unsealed charges against Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, 34, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in New York City and South Florida before fleeing after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, present the government’s clearest case to date that the main al-Qaeda organization remains active in trying to attack U.S. targets, alongside similar efforts by al-Qaeda affiliates.
In addition to alleging Shukrijumah’s operational role, the superceding indictment returned in the Eastern District of New York identified five other suspects tied to the plot, led by Colorado airport shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi, to set off suicide bombs in New York’s transit system. Officials did not make public the name of one of the five and provided only aliases for another.
The court filing comes as President Obama and senior national security aides have increasingly cited recent domestic terrorism cases as justification for the war in Afghanistan, noting that country’s border with uncontrolled tribal areas in Pakistan where al-Qaeda is based and from which, U.S. officials say, threats continue to emanate. A coordinated series of bombings in the London transit system in July 2005 was the last successful al-Qaeda attack in the West.
Besides Zazi, U.S. authorities have cited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day using explosives provided by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen; U.S. Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 people last November at Fort Hood, Tex., after communicating with Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S.-born cleric working with the Yemeni group; Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad, who sought training from the Pakistani Taliban; and David C. Headley, a Chicago-based Pakistani American who pleaded guilty to helping plan a November 2008 terrorist raid on Mumbai attributed to Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistani group with ties to al-Qaeda. Directly recruited
But unlike the others, who became radicalized on their own or through groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, Zazi was directly recruited by Shukrijumah, working with senior al-Qaeda leaders, the indictment charged.
Zazi allegedly communicated through an al-Qaeda facilitator in Peshawar, Pakistan, a defendant identified in the indictment only as “Ahmad” or “Zahid,” who also relayed messages by Abid Naseer, the alleged leader of a ring broken up in April 2009 that sought to bomb shopping centers near Manchester, England. British authorities announced Naseer’s arrest Wednesday, and the U.S. government requested his extradition.
Also charged are alleged Naseer co-conspirator Tariq Ur Rehman, who is not in custody, and Adis Medunjanin, an alleged Zazi accomplice who has pleaded not guilty.
Each of the defendants faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of terrorism-related charges, which include training with al-Qaeda and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, commit murder abroad and support the group.
“These charges underscore the global nature of the terrorist threat we face,” David Kris, assistant U.S. attorney general for national security, said in a written statement.
U.S. prosecutors said both Zazi and Naseer were directed by two top al-Qaeda leaders — Saleh al-Somali, al-Qaeda’s head of international operations, and Rashid Rauf, a key operative — before they were killed in U.S. missile strikes. Authorities have identified Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani origin, as a key planner of an al-Qaeda plot foiled in August 2006 to blow up transatlantic jetliners using liquid explosives and a possible handler in the July 2005 transit bombings in London. ‘The 2.0 version’
Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism analyst at Georgetown University, said the 2006 airline plot was noteworthy in part because it was based in Britain and targeted at the United States.
“Now we have the 2.0 version of that, wherein attacks both in the U.K. and the U.S. are being coordinated and orchestrated by the same al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan,” Hoffman said.
The new charges “put the [Zazi] plot as well as Shukrijumah closer to al-Qaeda’s inner circle, and certainly points to a more operational and lethal role for Shukrijumah in targeting the United States,” said Juan C. Zarate, White House counterterrorism adviser from 2005 to 2009 and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. officials launched a global manhunt for Shukrijumah in 2003, setting a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and calling him an “imminent threat to U.S. citizens and interests.”
Identified by captured al-Qaeda planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed as a key operative, Shukrijumah has been described as Westernized, able to speak English with no discernible accent and able to pass as Latino, Indian or Middle Eastern. Shukrijumah trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001; met with Jose Padilla, the American accused of planning to detonate a radiological bomb in the United States; and has been suspected of traveling through Canada, Latin America and Trinidad, U.S. officials have said.
The U.S. indictment, released on the fifth anniversary of the London transit bombings, which killed 52 people, may help Britain’s new coalition government bridge differences over the fate of Naseer, experts said.
The 24-year-old Pakistani was among 11 men hastily arrested in April 2009 but never charged after a government official was photographed with documents detailing investigators’ findings and arrest plans. A British court identified Naseer as a “serious and continuing threat” but declined to deport him to Pakistan, saying he could face torture. The two parties had differed over the validity of his detention under virtual house arrest.
By Spencer S. Hsu