On Monday, agents with New York City's Joint Terrorism Task Force raided two apartments in Flushing, Queens, asking about a suspected al Qaeda associate that had visited the apartments over the weekend, and was feared to be involved in a plot to make homemade bombs. No arrests were made, though agents confiscated some computers and cell phones.
That man was soon identified as Najibullah Zazi. Zazi, 25, had previously lived in Flushing, and attended the same mosque as the men who live in the raided apartments. All of the men, including Zazi, originally come from the same region of Afghanistan.
Authorities told members of Congress that the raid had helped thwart a plot to carry out a major attack on New York. They said Zazi had brought with him to New York instructions on how to build a bomb using household chemicals. And they said they had found 14 brand new black backpacks in the apartment -- an echo of the Madrid train bombings, in which the bombers used backpacks to carry home-made explosives.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had been briefed on the raids by FBI director Robert Mueller, described the raids as "preventative."
Both Zazi and his lawyer quickly told reporters that he has no ties to al Qaeda. He said he moved to Colorado a few years ago, and had driven back to New York the previous week to deal with a problem over a permit for a coffee cart he operated in Manhattan. (That account was supported by the person who now operates the cart.) Zazi also said he frequently travels to Afghanistan to visit his wife, who lives in the Peshawar region.
On Tuesday, counter-terrorism officials warned police departments around the country to be on the lookout for evidence of homemade bombs.
Then yesterday, the FBI raided Zazi's home in Denver, after obtaining a warrant.
There are signs that the investigation hasn't always been conducted perfectly. FBI agents accused the NYPD of acting prematurely by conducting the raid. The FBI wanted to gather more information before tipping the suspects off.
And the New York Times reported:
Investigators have been left to pursue leads before fully understanding any potential intentions for wrongdoing or figuring out the range of possible targets or means of attack, officials said.
Federal officials said they were somewhat frustrated by the way the investigation was conducted on the ground. Mr. Zazi was stopped at the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 10 as he entered New York. In addition, photos of him were shown to his acquaintances in Queens, one of whom tipped him off, a government official said.
Once Mr. Zazi flew back to Colorado, the agents were forced to scurry to get search warrants, with prosecutors in New York and Washington caught off guard and hastily drafting the legal documents, officials said.
It's not clear yet whether this was indeed a serious terror plot, or another case of the Feds blowing out of proportion a minor operation targeted at common criminals -- as has happened in the past. But it seems clear we haven't heard the last of this story.