Updated: Sept. 24, 2009
If Najibullah Zazi is everything the FBI says he is, then the Afghan-born Denver airport-shuttle-bus driver represents a new kind of menace for the U.S. His arrest is a double blessing: it may have thwarted a terrorism plot, and it could give counterterrorism officials a goldmine of information on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the state of the global jihad.
The FBI believes he and others were plotting to bomb targets in the U.S. and, on Thursday, Zazi was indicted on charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction. He and his father Mohammed have denied involvement in any terrorism plot. The evidence turned up by the FBI will be especially interesting to counterterrorism experts not least because of Zazi's origins.
Afghans "have not been a major component of the transnational jihadi network," says Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis at the intelligence firm Stratfor. Afghan jihadis have tended to join the Taliban, which has traditionally limited its attentions to Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. But Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, believes the Taliban's worldview has changed a great deal since the government it ran was overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. "The Afghan Taliban see themselves quite differently now from 9/11: many of the leaders now see themselves as part of the global jihad," says Grenier, who now heads the consulting firm ERG Partners.
So it wouldn't be a surprise if the Taliban decided to mount a plot against targets in the U.S. "There are probably people [in the Taliban] who are saying, 'To get rid of the U.S., it's not enough to fight them here,' " says Lawrence Korb, a national-security expert at the Center for American Progress. After all, he points out, al-Qaeda's rationale for attacks on the U.S. was "to get us out of Saudi Arabia."
Nor is the sentiment restricted to the ranks of the Taliban. "Lots of Afghans see the U.S. presence as an occupation, and I can easily see how some of them would be motivated to strike at the U.S. wherever they can," Grenier says. Korb points out that there is a great deal of anger among Afghans over U.S. policies in their country. "There are people who feel we didn't keep our promises President Bush talked of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan," he says. "Some Afghans now wonder if we're not just like the Soviets."
It's hard to know if the Taliban has been specifically recruiting Afghans for international operations. If the charges against him are true, Zazi may be no more than "an instrument of opportunity, someone who got in touch with them, who shared their ideology, and whom they thought they could use," says Bokhari. According to the Associated Press, a government document filed in connection with the case states that Zazi on Sept. 6 and 7, tried on multiple times to communicate with another person "seeking to correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives." "Each communication," the AP quoted the document as saying, was "more urgent than the last."
Apart from Zazi's Afghan background, counterterrorism experts will be especially keen to know about his associations in Pakistan. The FBI says Zazi has admitted he spent time at an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan in 2008, receiving training in weapons and explosives. If that is true, then Zazi could be a very valuable source of information on how al-Qaeda trains jihadis now. What U.S. counterterrorism officials know about jihadi training camps is based mostly on intelligence gleaned after al-Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan were overrun in 2001. Relatively little is known about the camps in Pakistan, which are located close to the border with Afghanistan.
"If Zazi met or trained with terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistan border, any insights we glean could add considerably to our ever expanding base of knowledge on al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "That's a good thing for us and very bad thing for our enemies."