The FBI’s arrest of three men on charges of lying to investigators came after the probe of a possible terrorism plot was revealed to its target, a sequence that led terrorism scholars to describe it as a blown case and at least one of them to contrast the arrests with the recent practice of letting plots mature before swooping in.
The three men were arraigned Monday on charges of lying to the FBI.
Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old airport-shuttle driver who has emerged as the focal point of the investigation, and his father, 53-year-old Mohammed Wali Zazi, appeared in federal court in Denver. Ahmad Wais Afzali, a 37-year-old imam, was arraigned in federal court in New York.
The arrests stem from an investigation that the FBI said centered on a plot involving several people in the United States and Pakistan who wanted to detonate improvised explosive devices in the U.S. But authorities have also said they had not uncovered any evidence related to the timing, location or target of the planned attacks, and have stressed the plot posed no imminent threat.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin Friday to law-enforcement agencies, advising them in light of the then-developing case to remain vigilant about the threat of homemade explosives to mass-transit systems, noting that overseas incidents frequently used peroxide-based improvised explosive devices hidden in backpacks.
Authorities last week seized backpacks and cellular phones from apartments in Queens, N.Y., where Mr. Zazi visited. The fatal train bombings in London and Madrid were carried out with bombs hidden in backpacks, detonated by cellular phones.
The effects of the warning and its recommendation of vigilance was not immediately clear Monday.
Jeffrey F. Addicott, a professor and director of the center for terrorism law at St. Mary’s University’s law school in San Antonio, said his “gut feeling” is that the FBI would have preferred to continue investigating Najibullah Zazi and the apparent plot before making arrests.
“The NYPD blew the cover of the case that the feds were working on,” Mr. Addicott said, referring to details in court documents that indicate New York police approached Mr. Afzali seeking information about Mr. Zazi and others. Authorities say Mr. Afzali then shared that information with Mr. Zazi.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Mr. Addicott’s interpretation of the case, but last week FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the FBI and the NYPD “have a very good working relationship and will continue that relationship.”
Mr. Afzali and Mohammed Zazi were charged with lying to investigators about conversations they had with each other and the younger Mr. Zazi after learning about the investigation. Authorities have not released any information linking Mr. Afzali and the elder Mr. Zazi to the purported plot.
Authorities say Najibullah Zazi, who received weapons and explosives training at an al Qaeda training facility in Pakistan, is accused of lying to the FBI when he said he didn’t know about the handwritten notes on making bombs found on his computer. Authorities say handwriting analysis indicate Mr. Zazi wrote the notes.
But he does not face terrorism charges, and has denied he is a terrorist.
Ken Piernick, a retired FBI agent who worked on terrorism cases, called the arrests “a prematurely taken-down case.”
“It looks like they caught them earlier than they want to,” he said.
Mr. Addicott said that within the past two years authorities seem to have tended to allowed plots to develop further before making arrests.
As an example, Mr. Addicott pointed to the case of five would-be jihadist convicted of plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. The men were arrested in 2007 when they tried to buy machine guns in a sale set up by undercover FBI agents.
Mr. Addicott said letting a plot develop further allows authorities to bring charges with severe penalties - four of the men in the Fort Dix plot received life in prison, while the fifth received a 33-year term. He also said the giving investigators time to build a strong case with significant evidence of an actual terrorist plot helps quell criticisms that authorities overreact to potential terrorism threats.
“We were getting better at it,” he said. “But this case is reminiscent of the early days.”
Mr. Addicott said that authorities in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would frequently charge suspected terrorists as soon as possible and often on less serious charges, such as immigration violations, lying to investigators and fraud.
Mr. Addicott said that between September 2001 and August 2006, federal authorities arrested 6,500 people who were labeled “international terrorists.” Of those arrested, he said only 1,329 people, or 27 percent, were convicted of any crime in federal court.
Almost all of them were convicted of less serious crimes, he said. Less than 12 percent were convicted of providing material support to terrorists, a charge that carries a potential 20-year prison sentence and is frequently leveled against suspected terrorists in the U.S.
“You want to let the case the develop,” he said. “If you move too fast, you are going to be left with charging lesser, included offenses.”
The three men arrested in the most recent case each face eight years in prison if convicted.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig B. Shaffer agreed to release the elder Mr. Zazi on a $50,000 unsecured bond, although it may be a few days before his release because his home must be set up for electronic monitoring.
The younger Mr. Zazi is being held pending a hearing Thursday, at which a judge will decide whether he should receive bail.
Mr. Afzali was also held without bond after authorities argued that he may flee if released. The Associated Press reported that his attorney, Ron Kuby, accused authorities of trying to make the imam a scapegoat for a botched investigation.
Mr. Kuby told reporters outside the court that before Mr. Afzali’s arrest, authorities had begged him to help them in the Zazi investigation. He said his client knew he was being recorded, and never tried to mislead the FBI.
“They blew their own investigation, and now they’re trying to blame my client,” he said.