National Security Network

Zazi Terror Case Vindicates Terrorism Approach while Conservatives Politicize

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Report 23 February 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda


Yesterday, a New York City court brought the suspect of the biggest terrorism plot since 9/11 to justice, as Najibullah Zazi pled guilty.  His plot involved training in Pakistan and homemade explosives intended to be set off on the New York City subway. The disruption of the plot, its investigation, and interrogation all came about through the coordination of law enforcement and intelligence.  Now, he is cooperating with civilian authorities and providing information to military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

From the start, the Obama administration utilized a crucial tool in combating terrorism: the rule of law. The Zazi success is the latest in a string of terrorism cases where the use of the criminal justice system has worked to thwart attacks and gain important intelligence.  Yet conservatives in the media and Congress still continue to ignore these successes by insisting on sticking to what they see as an opportunistic political strategy: attack the Obama administration on national security regardless of the facts.  Conservative critics have specifically focused on criticizing the use of America's tried and tested criminal justice system in combating terrorism.  But as the former FBI terrorism interrogator who discovered that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the 9/11 mastermind said: ‘This shows that law enforcement can be [a] strong tool at our disposal.'

Obama administration brings terrorist behind largest domestic terrorist plot since 9/11 to justice.  As the Washington Post reported, "An airport shuttle bus driver who plotted to detonate potent explosives in New York's subway system pleaded guilty Monday for his role in a ‘martyrdom operation' that authorities called one of the most serious terrorism plots on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001." Najibullah Zazi was born in Afghanistan, raised in Pakistan, and later attended high school in Queens. The AP detailed the foiled plot, explaining, "Zazi admitted using notes taken at an al-Qaida training camp in Waziristan, Pakistan, to build homemade explosives with beauty supplies purchased in the Denver suburbs and cooked up in a Colorado hotel room. He then drove the materials to New York just before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. His plan was to assemble the bombs over the weekend and detonate them within days. While entering the city, Zazi was stopped by police for a routine traffic violation on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York. Suspicious officers allowed him to go free but kept a close watch on his movements. ‘The plan was to conduct martyrdom operation on the subway lines in Manhattan as soon as the material was ready,' Zazi said. Sometime after the traffic stop, Zazi realized authorities were investigating him. ‘At that point, we threw away the detonator explosives and other materials,' he said."

Zazi was arrested in Colorado on September 19, 2009. The New York Daily News reports that "Zazi, who was arrested Sept. 19 after he returned to Denver, pleaded guilty to three charges: conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers abroad and giving support to Al Qaeda. He faces life in prison." [Washington Post, 2/23/10. AP, 2/23/10. NY Times, 2/23/10. NY Daily News, 2/22/10]

Zazi case vindicates the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy.  Not only did Najibullah Zazi confess to his crimes, but he is "share[ing] information about confederates overseas," according to the Washington Post. This case clearly vindicates the Obama administration's approach to combating terrorism by utilizing the power of the rule of law.  As Attorney General Eric Holder said, "Were it not for the combined efforts of the law enforcement and intelligence communities, it could have been devastating... This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion and it would have been deadly."  Holder said that the civilian court system is "an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists... [it] contains powerful incentives to induce pleas that yield long sentences and gain intelligence."

And the Washington Post reports that certain tools for gaining intelligence and cooperation were open to the criminal justice system, but would not otherwise be available: "Law enforcement sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, said Zazi began to accelerate his cooperation after authorities charged his Afghan-born father with crimes and threatened to charge his mother with immigration offenses -- options that are not available in the military justice system."  Adam Serwer of the American Prospect comments that "as with Umar Abdulmutallab, the government found where it could apply leverage and did so. As a result, Zazi has been providing intelligence -- and he will still spend the rest of his life in prison.  Again, the only reason Republicans are insisting on using military courts in all circumstances is because they ‘sound' tougher. In practice, civilian courts hand out harsher sentences and are better equipped to handle terrorism cases. They also provide better incentives for providing accurate information on the part of the defendants." [Washington Post, 2/23/10.  NY Times, 2/22/10. Adam Serwer, TAPPED, 2/22/10. Washington Independent, 2/23/10]

The Zazi case is most recent case in a trend of law enforcement successes in combating terrorism.  Ali Soufan, the former FBI terrorism interrogator who discovered that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the 9/11 mastermind, told Newsweek's Michael Isikoff that: "This shows that law enforcement can be [a] strong tool at our disposal." Isikoff outlines a number of recent cases where the use of the criminal justice system has proven fruitful: "Since last summer alone, the terror suspects who are publicly known to have cooperated with the FBI include Bryant Neal Vinas, a former Long Island, New York truck driver who has acknowledged providing Al Qaeda with information about New York area transit systems; David Coleman Headley, a Chicago resident who had contacts with a high level Al Qaeda linked figure in Pakistan and conducted scouting runs for the November, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, and Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect who tried to blow up the Northwest airlines flight on Christmas Day. Officials say Abdulmutallab began cooperating about his contacts with Al Qaeda in Yemen after the FBI reached out to two members of his family in Nigeria-one of them his mother-and brought them to Detroit to persuade the suspect to begin cooperating. ‘These are major flips. This is huge information that these guys are giving,' said Ali Soufan." [Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, 2/22/10]

Conservative politicization of terrorism runs smack-dab into the Obama administration's track record of success.  News that the Obama administration is successfully winding down the break-up of the most serious domestic terror plot since 9/11 has been largely ignored by conservatives, who instead have chosen to politicize terrorism for their own gain. After recounting the details of Najibullah Zazi's guilty plea on MSNBC First Read, Mark Murray observed, "Interestingly, we barely heard a peep from Republicans on the Zazi guilty plea." Media Matters noted the deafening silence from conservative media corridors: "On February 22, the hosts of Fox News' three top-rated programs -- Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity -- did not mention the guilty plea on terrorism charges in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn by Najibullah Zazi, who was at the center of an alleged plot to bomb the New York subway system. Beck, O'Reilly, and Hannity have all previously criticized President Obama's desire to prosecute suspected terrorists in the U.S. legal system rather than in military tribunals."

Sadly, it appears that conservatives are bent on pursuing a strategy of craven politicization. According to Roll Call, a messaging memo from the House Republican Conference encouraged Members to attack the Obama administration on their counterterrorism record, including such policies as the use of Miranda rights on domestic terrorists, and civilian trials for terror suspects.  At the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty appeared to echo this memo, saying delivering "a message for President more giving Miranda rights to terrorists." The Washington Post noted that Florida Senate candidate Marc Rubio did the same, promising to "get useful information" from terrorists before bringing "them to justice in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo!" Despite the successes of an experienced and tested court system, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)  is reportedly pressing "to establish a new national security court that would keep most Guantanamo detainees out of the federal courthouse."  As the guilty pleas of Najibullah Zazi underscore, these political attacks run straight into a record of success in thwarting plots against the U.S. and bringing terrorists to justice.  [Mark Murray, MSNBC, 2/23/10. Media Matters, 2/22/10. Roll Call, 2/16/10. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 2/19/10. Washington Post, 2/19/10]

What We're Reading

A senior Afghan Taliban commander, Maulavi Abdul Kabir, has been taken into custody in Pakistan, the latest in a recent string of arrests that hold promise for weaken the insurgency.

The top U.S. commander in Baghdad said some American combat forces could remain in Iraq after this summer's planned withdrawal date if the country's feuding leaders are unable to quickly form a new government. Meanwhile, pre-election violence continues across the country.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was worried about the "unintended consequences" of an attack on Iran's nuclear program.

Faced with a disaster of overwhelming proportions, Haiti's fractious political opposition is trying to set aside its differences and work with President René Préval to reach a consensus on how to rebuild the devastated country.

A top Sinaloa Cartel lieutenant accused of directing the assassinations of rivals as well as Mexican and U.S. government officials, will be arraigned Tuesday in federal court in Chicago on charges of smuggling multiple tons of cocaine and heroin into the US.

Turkish police detained three of the country's highest-ranking former generals as part of an investigation into a shadowy ultranationalist movement accused of planning to overthrow Erdogan government.

Opposition parties in Russia are growing bolder.

Under harsh criticism, Israel continues to defend its use of assassination to fight a non-conventional enemy.

 A strong personal relationship between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, forged during their time as their countries' respective ambassadors to China, could facilitate Thursday's talks between the two countries.

Commentary of the Day

Anne Applebaum says President Obama will not bomb Iran because bombing has little utility - either technically or politically.

Gideon Rachman argues that the rupture of the Euro currency area brought about by the Greek crisis will have parallel political ramifications that will threaten European unity.

The NYT editorial board points out that restraint is needed to keep laws intended to ban support for terrorists groups from infringing on free speech and association rights.