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The father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, eventually immigrated to New York City, where he found work as a taxi driver, saving his money until he had enough to bring his wife and children to the U.S. (The older Zazi became a naturalized U.S. citizen.) Once in New York City, Najibullah proved to be an indifferent student at Flushing High School in Queens, more interested in basketball than in books, and he was a silent watcher at the Hazrat-i-Abubakr Sadiq mosque. His imam in those days, Mohammed Sherzad, remembers Zazi's visits to the white two-story building topped with a blue dome and minaret: "Every Saturday and Sunday, I had a class for the younger generation. Some students would ask me questions, but Najibullah never asked he was listening."
When Zazi was 16, bin Laden's army delivered a stunning attack on New York City and Washington. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers drove a wedge into the community of Afghan immigrants in Queens, Sherzad recalls, and the mosque was torn apart over the imam's criticism of the Taliban government that shielded bin Laden in Afghanistan. The Zazi family sided against Sherzad, he recalls, and afterward Zazi refused to meet the imam's gaze when they passed each other on the street. Still, an acquaintance told the New York Times that Zazi was baffled by the suicide hijackers. "I don't know how people could do things like this," Zazi reportedly said of the attacks. "I'd never do anything like that."
There are hints that the young man began to change after 9/11. He dropped out of school and took his place working at a family coffee cart near Wall Street, not far from ground zero. Though gregarious with customers, Zazi grew stern with his friends, chastising them for their interest in popular music and expressing other fundamentalist views. On certain occasions, he replaced his Western clothing with a traditional tunic, and he let his whiskers grow. "Najib is completely different," a neighborhood man told Sherzad a few years ago. "He looks like a Taliban. He has a big beard. He's talking different."
And listening differently too. A friend from that period tells TIME that Zazi became enchanted with the controversial Indian Muslim televangelist Dr. Zakir Naik, who preaches a wild mix of harsh Islamic rhetoric and unorthodox Muslim theology. His videos reach a global audience online. On the topic of jihad and terrorism, Naik was far from the most incendiary voice, but he managed in his own way to make clear the choice between bin Laden and Uncle Sam. "If [bin Laden] is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him," the former medical doctor says in one YouTube clip. "If he is terrorizing America the terrorist, biggest terrorist I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist." In an interview with TIME after Zazi's arrest, Naik insisted, "I have always condemned terrorism, because according to the glorious Koran, if you kill one innocent person, then you have killed the whole of humanity."
Naik's preaching may have given Zazi a mirror for his own confused feelings as he struggled to start a family and make ends meet. The streets of America weren't paved with gold for Zazi. He fell deeply into debt. Starting around 2006, when he traveled to Pakistan to marry a 19-year-old cousin, Zazi began dividing his time between New York City and the increasingly radical milieu of Hayatabad, a relatively prosperous city near Peshawar where bin Laden's influence was deeply felt. Visits in 2006 and 2007 produced two children, and he hoped to bring his family to the U.S. someday. It was a dim hope, as Zazi spiraled toward bankruptcy.
Then, in 2008, a third trip generated an entirely different result. According to court documents filed by the FBI, Zazi and an unspecified number of companions flew on Aug. 28 to Peshawar via Geneva and Doha. According to knowledgeable sources, something about this trip inspired U.S. officials to ask Pakistani authorities to keep an eye on Zazi, and what they saw was unsettling. "There was reason to believe that Zazi met with terrorists in Pakistan," a U.S. counterterrorism official tells TIME. The FBI confirms this, saying that since his arrest, Zazi has admitted to attending an al-Qaeda training camp, where he received instruction in weapons and explosives. "The nature of terrorist-training camps in Pakistan varies considerably," the counterterrorism official explains. "Some are fixed locations, while others are mobile. Some have better infrastructure and support than others. But they all have one thing in common they're dangerous and are thus of significant concern to us and our allies."