NEW YORK — Three former high school classmates, after getting terror training at an al Qaeda outpost, discussed bombing New York City movie theaters, Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange before targeting the city's subways, a prosecutor said Monday at the trial for one of the men.
Once back home, Adis Medunjanin and the others formed a sleeper cell of would-be suicide bombers that in 2009 nearly pulled off one of the most chilling terror plots since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam. The terror network valued them for their U.S. passports, which allowed them to slip back into the United States and "blend in" until it was time to strike, he said.
The men "were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them — men, women and children," Loonam said during opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn. "These men came so close — within days of carrying out this attack."
Defense attorney Robert Gottlieb countered by accusing the government of using "inflammatory rhetoric" about al Qaeda and terrorism to prevent jurors "from seeing the truth about this case." The lawyer conceded his client — a Muslim born in Bosnia — had sought to support the Taliban's struggle against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but denied he ever agreed to kill American civilians for al Qaeda.
"The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist," he said. "Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb the New York City subways."
Medunjanin, 27, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges. The college graduate and naturalized U.S. citizen wore a dark suit in court on Monday and had a long, dark beard.
The defendant's childhood friends from Queens, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, have previously admitted in guilty pleas that they wanted to avenge U.S. aggression in the Arab world by becoming martyrs. In his first public account, Ahmedzay testified for the government Monday that Medunjanin encouraged him to follow a more radical form of Islam by giving him recordings of sermons of U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki,
"I became very radical in my views," he said.
While sitting in a car outside a Queens mosque, the three men "made a covenant to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahedeen against American forces."
Ahmedzay testified the three men traveled in 2008 to Pakistan, where they met al Qaeda recruiters who told them they would be better suited for a suicide mission in the United States. They were driven 10 hours away to a training facility protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades, AK-47s and other weapons, he said.
Zazi also is expected to testify about how, after relocating to the Denver area, he cooked up explosives and set out by car for New York City in September 2009 to carry out the attack. He was arrested after abandoning the plan and fleeing back to Colorado.
Another possible witness is Bryant Neal Vinas, a Long Island man who joined al Qaeda around the same time as the other men. Officials have credited Vinas with providing key intelligence about the terror group since his capture in 2008.
Meanwhile, Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said Monday that it had struck a rare deal with a convicted terrorist to provide evidence for Medunjanin's trial. Saajid Badat, who was jailed in Britain in 2005 for his role in a 2001 plot to down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden inside shoes, had his jail term cut from 13 years to 11 years under the agreement. Badat was an accomplice of so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence in the United States.
Prosecutors could not confirm whether Badat will appear in person to testify, provide written evidence or appear from his British jail via a closed circuit video.
• Associated Press writer David Stringer in London contributed to this report.