The Justice Department brought charges Thursday in three unrelated bombing plots, but in only one - the case of a 24-year-old man accused of taking part in an al Qaeda plot to unleash a bombing campaign against Americans - was the public in any potential danger.
In the other two cases, two men were caught in stings by the FBI. Unbeknownst to the men in both investigations, the FBI made sure the bombs they planted were fakes.
In the most serious case, Najibullah Zazi, an airport shuttle driver from Denver, was indicted Thursday in New York on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction - explosive bombs - against persons or property in the United States. He faces life in prison if convicted. The new charge represents a serious escalation of the legal issues facing Mr. Zazi, who was charged last weekend with the far less-serious charge of lying to FBI agents investigating a purported al Qaeda bombing plot involving several people in the U.S. and Pakistan.
“We are investigating a wide range of leads related to this alleged conspiracy, and we will continue to work around the clock to ensure that anyone involved is brought to justice,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. “We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted, but as always, we remind the American public to be vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.”
The other two cases played out far differently from that of Mr. Zazi, but were similar to each other. In those cases, the FBI learned about two men espousing a desire to engage in jihad and sent undercover agents to pose as conspirators.
In Illinois, 29-year-old Michael Finton told undercover agents that he wanted to attack America. Agents gave him a phony bomb that Mr. Finton planted at courthouse, authorities said.
Mr. Finton is charged with one count of attempted murder of federal officers or employees and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He faces life in prison if convicted.
In Dallas, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, 19, was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. In tactics similar to Mr. Finton’s case, FBI agents posing as terrorists approached Mr. Smadi after learning of his desire for holy war, authorities said.
Ultimately, the FBI said, agents gave him a phony bomb that he planted at a 60-story glass office building in downtown Dallas.
The investigation into Mr. Zazi was far more complex.
Products more closely associated with hairdressers than holy warriors were key to authorities building a case against Mr. Zazi, federal authorities said in court papers filed with an indictment of Mr. Zazi that were unsealed Thursday.
Federal authorities said that surveillance video footage and receipts show Mr. Zazi and others who have not been identified publicly bought from beauty supply stores across Denver large quantities of products containing hydrogen peroxide and nail polish remover.
In one episode, authorities say, Mr. Zazi, a legal permanent resident from Afghanistan who worked as an airport shuttle driver in Denver, bought a dozen 32-ounce bottles of a hydrogen-peroxide product called Ms. K Liquid 40 Volume, which is used in hair coloring.
Mr. Zazi appeared Thursday in federal court in Denver; authorities asked that he be denied bail and sent to New York to face charges. A decision could be announced as soon as Friday.
Mr. Zazi’s father and a New York imam have also been charged with lying to the FBI, but neither man has been linked to the purported plot and both have been released on bail.
The imam, 37-year-old Ahmad Wais Afzali, was released Thursday on a $1.5 million bond. His parents’ home in the New York borough of Queens was posted as collateral.
“If you don’t come back to court, they are going to be ruined financially,” the judge told Mr. Afzali, who authorities say tipped off Mr. Zazi about the investigation and then denied doing so to FBI agents.
Mohammed Wali Zazi, 53, was previously ordered released on an unsecured $50,000 bond. He is accused of lying to investigators about discussions he had with Mr. Afzali.
While the scope of the purported plot is still not clear, prosecutors filed documents in the case Thursday that provide the most complete accounting to date of the government’s accusations. They indicate the case against Najibullah Zazi was built through surveillance, wiretaps, seized receipts and forensic analysis.
Investigators had Mr. Zazi under surveillance when he drove a rental car from Colorado to New York two weeks ago. Mr. Zazi had lived in Queens before moving to Colorado in January.
Authorities later seized Mr. Zazi’s laptop computer from the rental car and found a photograph on it of nine pages of handwritten instructions about bomb making. The FBI said a handwriting expert determined that Mr. Zazi wrote the notes, an accusation he denied to investigators, which led authorities to bring the original lying charges against him.
Court records indicate the notes contained instructions for making triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, which is the type of explosive used in the 2005 London train bombing and what shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to used on an airplane in 2001.
Investigators said they also kept Mr. Zazi under surveillance when he rented a hotel suite in Colorado on Sept. 6-7. Authorities think Mr. Zazi used the suite’s stove to cook the components together to make a bomb; agents said they found chemical residue in a vent above the stove.
It appears Mr. Zazi was not successful in making a bomb.
Intercepted communication - court records do not indicate what type - show that Mr. Zazi repeatedly attempted to make contact with another person “to correct the mixture of ingredients to make explosives.”
Court records indicate “each communication more urgent in tone than the last. Zazi repeatedly emphasized in the communications that he needed the answers right away.”
Valerie Richardson contributed to this report from Denver.