On the third island outside the bustling arrivals terminal at the Denver International Airport, shuttle-bus and van drivers hustle for passengers heading into town. "You need a ride, lady?" calls a Somali driver as a woman glides her black suitcase across the taxi lane. "Only $23 to downtown," shouts his competition.
Until last week, when he was arrested for allegedly lying to the feds in a terrorism investigation, Najibullah Zazi, 24, was a regular fixture touting for customers on the shuttle lane. Other drivers remember him, describing his tightly trimmed mustache and scraggly beard, standing in front of the white van bearing the company's name, First ABC Transportation Inc., painted in neat navy blue block letters. Unlike most drivers at ABC, who drove eight- or nine-hour shifts, Zazi routinely worked 16-to-18-hour days, often putting in as many as 80 hours a week ferrying passengers to and from DIA. "He was a regular kind of guy, but he worked hard and he wanted money," says Hicham Semmaml, a Moroccan-born ABC driver. "I would have never suspected any of this."
Zazi has been indicted for conspiring to detonate weapons of mass destruction. Richard Gross, a spokesman for ABC Transportation, told Denver's 9 News that Zazi didn't appear to be particularly political or religiously fanatic to his co-workers, many of whom are also Muslim. "He kept to himself pretty much, and he never gave any outward signs of being connected with anybody," Gross said.
But appearances can be deceiving. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed details of the case against Zazi, accusing him of receiving bomb-making education from al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, of purchasing components in beauty-supply shops around the Denver suburb of Aurora for mixing explosives, and of traveling to New York City to advance an as yet undisclosed terrorism plot. Arrested along with his father Mohammed Wali Zazi and a New York City cleric, he could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.
Zazi was born in Afghanistan's war-torn border region, moving to Pakistan at age 7 and then to New York in 1999. He spent just nine months living in Aurora, initially moving in with an aunt and uncle who own a brick townhouse in a manicured development at the edge of the parched Colorado prairie. More recently, he moved into a nearby two-bedroom apartment, which he shared with his father and two brothers until they were evicted shortly before the arrests. With more than $50,000 in credit-card debt, Zazi declared bankruptcy last March.
The aunt of the accused, Rabia Zazi, 35, confirmed that despite the money woes, her nephew managed to visit Pakistan recently, where she said he went to visit a cousin he married in 2006. But since Zazi and his father were arrested, Rabia and her husband have clammed up: the shutters remain drawn at their tan-colored house, and despite a cluster of SUVs in the driveway and a pile of plastic flip-flops on the front stoop, no one answers the door. Neighbors said the family kept to itself even before the arrests, and other Afghan-American families who came from southeastern Afghanistan said the Zazi family never interacted with Denver's tight-knit Muslim community. "I used to see this guy Najibullah at the mosque from time to time," says Emanudin Ghiasi, an Afghan American and a founding member of the Colorado Muslim Society, which serves the estimated 15,000 Muslims in the Denver metro area. "But he never spoke to anyone."
Zazi would turn up for afternoon prayers each Friday Islam's holy day parking the ABC van in the parking lot outside the sprawling brick complex with its black dome and narrow minaret. Other regular worshippers agreed that he never spoke to anyone and usually rushed off immediately once the service ended.Many are suspicious of the charges against Zazi but say that, if true, Najibullah Zazi could not possibly have been indoctrinated in Denver. "He was like an outlier," says a mosque official who didn't want his name used. "This is a community that is very close, and if al-Qaeda were active here, we would know about it."
Since Zazi's arrest, many Denver-based Muslims have quietly braced for a public blowback. "Of course we are not happy if he was really doing these things," says Shohaib Ghori, a Karachi native. "But when there is so much publicity, it makes us all feel guilty by association, despite the fact that 99.9% of our community are law-abiding citizens."
For Afghans especially ethnic Pashtuns like Zazi who follow a strict code of conduct the arrests have brought shame not just to his family but to the entire community. "The dishonor of getting accused is just as bad in our culture as being guilty," says Ahad Shahbaz, who runs English-language-teaching programs in Boulder. "Even if he is honest, now he has dishonored his family."