NEW YORK (AP) — A man said Friday that a plan to attack the New York City subway system was ordered by al Qaeda leaders two years ago while he was in Pakistan with a friend, a former airport shuttle driver who has admitted to building the homemade explosives in the plot.
Zarein Ahmedzay, 25, pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to charges including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction in the foiled New York City subway bomb plot from fall 2009.
He said he, admitted plotter Najibullah Zazi and a third, unidentified man met with the al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan in the summer of 2008, where they offered to join the Taliban and fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“They told us we would be more useful if we returned to New York City … to conduct operations,” he said. Asked by the judge what kind of operations, he responded, “Suicide-bombing operations.”
He added: “I personally believed that conducting an operation in the United States would be the best way to end the war,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Knox identified the leaders as senior al Qaeda operatives Saleh al-Somali and Rashid Rauf, who were both killed in Pakistan. The U.S. Justice Department on Friday described al-Somali as the head of international operations for al-Qaida.
Al-Somali was killed in a drone strike in December. Rauf, a British militant linked to a jetliner bomb plot, was also killed in a Predator strike in November 2008.
Knox said Ahmedzay met with a third senior al Qaeda operative in a training camp in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region near the Afghan border. He has not been identified.
Prosecutors say Ahmedzay joined Zazi and another friend from their Queens high school on the trip to Pakistan to seek terrorism training.
Zazi, a Colorado airport van driver, admitted this year that he tested bomb-making materials in a Denver suburb before traveling by car to New York with the intent of attacking the subway system to avenge U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
Ahmedzay and the third suspect, Adis Medunjanin, had previously pleaded not guilty to charges they sought to join Zazi in what prosecutors described as three “coordinated suicide bombing attacks” on Manhattan subway lines. Medunjanin’s attorney Robert C. Gottlieb said Friday his client intended to go to trial.
“This case is much different as it pertains to Mr. Medunjanin,” said Gottlieb.
Officials have said a fourth suspect is in custody in Pakistan but have given no other details about him.
Medunjanin, who is originally from Bosnia, and Ahmedzay, who was born in Afghanistan, are U.S. citizens. They and Zazi, an Afghan immigrant, attended Flushing High School in the borough of Queens.
Ahmedzay — who had been licensed to drive a taxi in New York — said Friday that al-Qaida leadership encouraged the men to target “well-known structures” in New York to cause “maximum casualties. He said they also decided that the attack should occur during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, between Aug. 22 and Sept. 20.
Prosecutors said the three settled on the subways after Zazi determined he could only make enough explosives for a smaller-scale attack in time for Ramadan, and decided it would happen Sept. 14, 15 or 16.
He quoted heavily from jihad verse in the Quran during his plea and urged Americans to “stop supporting the war against Islam.”
“I’m thankful for myself that I didn’t harm anyone, but I feel someone else will do the same thing,” he said.
Prosecutors say the attacks were modeled after the London transit system bombings in July 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 people and themselves in an attack on three subway trains and a bus.
The New York plot was disrupted in early September when police officials stopped Zazi’s car as it entered New York.
Last month, an Afghanistan-born imam linked to the suspects pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when asked about the men. He was sentenced to time served and ordered to leave the United States.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that the plot “makes clear we face a continued threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates overseas.”
“With three guilty pleas already and the investigation continuing, this prosecution underscores the importance of using every tool we have available to both disrupt plots against our nation and hold suspected terrorists accountable,” he said.
Defense attorney Michael Marinaccio declined to say whether his client was cooperating with the investigation. But he added that by agreeing to plead guilty, “There’s a potential benefit to him.”
Ahmedzay faces a possible life term at sentencing July 30.
Associated Press writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report.