From Smiling Coffee Vendor To Terror Suspect

From Smiling Coffee Vendor to Terror Suspect

By Michael Wilson
The New York Times, September 26, 2009

For years, he was a fixture in Lower Manhattan, as regular as the sunrise. Every morning, Najibullah Zazi would be there on Stone Street with his pastries and his coffee, his vending cart anchored to the sidewalk.

For many on Wall Street — young, old, all in a hurry, the charging bulls of Bowling Green — his was the first hello of the day. Affable and rooted, he lived for 10 years in the same apartment with his family in Flushing, Queens. His father drove a cab for more than 15 years.

He was, in other words, no brooding outcast, no sheltered, suggestible loner raised in a closed community.

He was the smiling man who remembered a customer liked his coffee large, light and sweet. He had a ''God Bless America'' sign on his cart. He was the doughnut man.

But prosecutors say Mr. Zazi, 24, who worked blocks from ground zero, was just as furtive an operative as the Sept. 11 hijackers when he traveled to Pakistan last year for terrorism training and returned to the United States with a plan to build bombs using beauty supplies and backpacks.

In fact, law enforcement officials, who fret about how to seal the borders of a free society from terrorists, say they find in Mr. Zazi a particularly harrowing challenge: a homegrown operative who travels freely, who is skilled with people, who passed an airport employee background check, who understands the patterns and nuance of American life so well that he gave multiple interviews to journalists for whom access and openness rarely seem like a disguise.

''This is one of the best countries in the world,'' he told a reporter by telephone on Sept. 14 after the F.B.I. had identified him as a terrorism suspect. ''It gives you every single right.''

Mr. Zazi, to date, has merely been charged, not proven guilty. And vast passages of his life remain unexplored, facts and experiences that could help explain his embrace of violence or undercut the government's disturbing portrait of him.

Even if he is proven to be the aspiring terrorist the government asserts, how and why he became one may not be understood for months, if ever. The suspects who have been charged with terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks were fueled by a variety of motivations and influences, and often a mix of them: politics, family, economic deprivation, social alienation, the work of a terrorist recruiter. Religion sometimes provides a general framework and sense of identity, but other factors and events frequently drive the transformation.

For nearly two weeks, though, the story of Mr. Zazi, now one of national interest, has lacked almost any details. A tour of where Mr. Zazi worked and lived, in New York and in Colorado, and interviews with investigators, the Zazi family and friends, provides something of a fuller picture, one filled with the routines of life in Queens but also flecked with hints of his emerging anger, contradictions and puzzles.

Mr. Zazi is both an Afghan immigrant steeped in the traditions of Islam and a kid from the streets of Queens, where his family moved in the early 1990s.

As a teenager, he often carried two things, his basketball and his prayer mat, his friends say. He grew a dark, wiry beard and began wearing tunics several years ago, just as he was applying for his first of two Macy's credit cards.

He was a janitor and a worshiper at a mosque that split several years ago over the question of its members' loyalty to the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was a devoted fan of gadgets who married, by arrangement, his 19-year-old cousin, who lives with their two children in Pakistan.

Last summer, the authorities say, he shopped in Denver for hair supplies to build bombs with. If he did so, he was also engaged in something much more mundane: credit counseling to survive a bankruptcy he had declared in New York.

It is impossible at this moment to know what it all adds up to. But the details that are being learned create the sense of a far more complicated man than the coffee cart vendor many people saw. Certainly the government's charges have painted the outlines of a man Mr. Zazi's family is having a very difficult time reconciling with the Najib they knew.

Habib Rasooli, a businessman in Queens and a relative of Mr. Zazi's, said they had no clue to the terrorist leanings, if they were real.

''If the guy was involved in all this stuff, I say, 'O.K., bring him to justice,' '' Mr. Rasooli said. ''I'd bring him myself.''

Early Life

Mr. Zazi was born on Aug. 10, 1985, in a village in the Paktia region of eastern Afghanistan. He is a middle child with two sisters and two brothers, and his family name is shared by a tribe, one of some 500 in the region.

The family moved to the Peshawar area of Pakistan in 1991 or 1992, when Mr. Zazi was about 7, he has said. The broader area has since been identified as ''ground zero in the U.S. jihadist war,'' according to a federal complaint against Mr. Zazi, and home to many Qaeda operatives.

Mr. Zazi's father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, came to the United States around 1991, relatives said, and began driving a yellow taxi, working 12-hour shifts so he could afford to bring his family over several years later. The family rented a two-bedroom apartment on Parsons Boulevard, near the home of the younger Mr. Zazi's aunt and uncle.

In many ways, Flushing must have seemed like another planet to a teenager raised in tribal villages. But several of the family's neighbors came from the same region, and many prayed together at the Masjid Hazrat Abu Bakr, a large Afghan mosque, which was near their house.

Najib entered Flushing High School, and played billiards with friends and basketball with other Afghan boys in the yard at Public School 214. He loved video games and all things technological, and that grew into a fascination with cellphones and computers, said a friend, Ahmad Zaraei. He played the lottery.

Najib was not a strong student, and he dropped out before graduating, friends said. Mr. Rasooli, the elder Mr. Zazi's step-uncle, said it bluntly: ''He was a dumb kid, believe me,'' but one who was dedicated to making money and helping his father.

Mr. Zaraei said, ''He was basically a left shoulder for his father.''

The younger Mr. Zazi also spent a lot of time at the mosque, even volunteering his time as a janitor there. He turned 16 a month and a day before Sept. 11, 2001. One acquaintance who gave only his first name, Rahul, recalled discussing the attacks three years later and Mr. Zazi saying: ''I don't know how people could do things like this. I'd never do anything like that.''

Life at the mosque was disrupted after the attacks. Worshipers there, a large white structure with a turquoise minaret on 33rd Avenue, became deeply divided. When the imam, Mohammed Sherzad, spoke out against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, pro-Taliban members of the mosque revolted, praying in the basement or the parking lot, and eventually ousted the imam, who opened a smaller mosque nearby.

It is unclear where, in this heated time, the Zazis fell, though the imam said in an interview that he saw several members of the Zazi family, including Najib, praying in the parking lot with those who opposed him.

Friends said that Najib later came to love videos on YouTube that featured Zakir Naik, a physician in India and a prominent speaker on Islam. Dr. Naik has been a controversial figure among Muslims and has been criticized for endorsing polygamy and Islamic criminal law, wherein the hands of a thief are chopped off, calling it ''the most practical.''

To Mr. Zazi, ''he was his inspiration,'' his friend Mr. Zaraei said. ''He just loved him.''

Dr. Naik does not preach violence, and neither did Mr. Zazi, ever, said Farooq Jaji, whose brother married the elder Mr. Zazi's sister. He said that he spoke many times with Mr. Zazi about world affairs and that the young man consistently said he found terrorism to be at odds with the teachings of Islam.

But prayer was important to him, said Sunwoo Sik, who owned a Flushing food market where Mr. Zazi worked for a year or so.

He had just walked in one day after seeing a ''cashier wanted'' sign in the window of Mr. Sik's store, the Norion Super Market.

''He said he didn't want to go to college,'' Mr. Sik said. ''He wanted to make money.'' He often came to work with a basketball, and ate halal meat and spicy rice every day for lunch, pausing each evening for his faith.

''Every day at 5, he'd go down to the basement and pray,'' Mr. Sik said. ''He'd lay out cardboard and pray.''

In 2005, he quit. His father now ran a coffee cart, which his sister and brother-in-law had been operating in Lower Manhattan. Now it was Mr. Zazi's turn. He took a 15-hour course in food handling to get a city license.

Mr. Sik said Mr. Zazi told him he was leaving ''because the coffee cart paid more money.''

The Cart Crew

The vendors gather before dawn in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, stocking their coffee carts with pastries and rolls that they generally buy from the owner of the Guernsey Street garage, from whom they also rent space.

Many of them are Afghan immigrants. Some own their carts. Others lease them. Mr. Zazi was there every morning for years, preparing his father's cart and towing it to the financial district, where he set up shop before the sun rose.

''He was well spoken,'' said John Walters, a customer who works nearby. ''He always said good morning to everyone. He used to memorize what everyone needed in the morning.''

During this period, around 2006, Mr. Zazi flew to Pakistan and took a wife, whom he hoped to later move to New York. He returned in 2007 for another visit, said his lawyer, Arthur Folsom.

Each time, he went back to work with his coffee cart. Over time, Mr. Zazi's appearance shifted, customers noted, to that of a devout Muslim. He grew his beard long, started carrying prayer beads and occasionally wore tunics instead of his Western-style outfits, friends and customers said.

''At first he wasn't that much into religion,'' said his friend Mr. Zaraei. ''That changed.''

At some point, several neighbors and customers said, they felt something change. Mr. Zazi was not as friendly.

A Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker, John Rodes, 53, who bought his coffee from Mr. Zazi, said a co-worker recounted to him that Mr. Zazi had tried to sell her a Koran. ''He did it more than once,'' Mr. Rodes said.

Erika Moran, 26, who works in investor relations, was a regular at his cart until last summer, she said.

''I got in an argument with him one day,'' Ms. Moran said. ''You knew he was very religious, to say the least. He asked if I was happy. I said yes. He told me I could not be happy. He was speaking in general. He said, 'You people cannot be happy, with your money.' ''

The stirrings of a move toward violence, or something much more inconsequential? Either way, money certainly was not making Mr. Zazi happy. He was spending more than he earned, opening new credit cards and not paying his bills.

In April 2008, according to bankruptcy records, he began using a Discover card. May 2008: a Shell card. June 2008: five new credit cards. July 2008: three more, including ones from Sony and Radio Shack. August 2008: two more.

He would later report that his monthly expenses were $1,108, including $450 in rent and $390 for food. His stated income was only $800.

Off to Pakistan

He said he was going to see his wife, as he did every year. On Aug. 28, 2008, Mr. Zazi and some others boarded a plane in Newark and flew through Switzerland and Qatar to Peshawar, according to court records.

The day he left, he had signed his cart over to another vendor to operate. It was a lease, and the Zazi family would receive payments of some kind.

Little is known about his time in Pakistan, except what the authorities say he has admitted: that he was trained in weapons and explosives. Insight into such training camps was gained in July when Bryant Neal Vinas of Long Island described his training in Peshawar to F.B.I. interrogators.

The first course was an introduction to the AK-47 and other guns, followed by a 15-day course in how to make suicide belts. Then rocket-propelled grenades. Then, graduation.

It is not clear precisely when federal authorities first encountered Mr. Zazi or how long they have been tracking his movements. On Jan. 15, after five months away, Mr. Zazi flew back to New York, arriving at Kennedy International Airport.

His financial woes were waiting for him. Five days after his return, he took part in a telephone counseling session with a representative of GreenPath Debt Solutions. He would file for bankruptcy two months later.

Then he abruptly moved to Colorado, where his aunt and uncle lived, in Aurora, a suburb on Denver's prairie-fringed flank, where newcomers find homes new and cheaper than in the city.

''Life is a little bit easier there,'' said Mr. Jaji, his relative. ''The living is cheaper.'' Mr. Jaji said he had spoken to the elder Mr. Zazi about two months ago and was told: ''We are happy. The children are happy.''

Mr. Zazi hit town hungry for work, again drifting toward a job generally filled by immigrants: driving a shuttle van at Denver International Airport. His shuttle carried 15 passengers.

He applied for a limousine license, underwent an airport background check and began driving a van for a company called Big Sky, then for a company called ABC Transportation.

Mr. Zazi quickly drew three tickets for moving violations, but his coffee-cart training paid off: drivers competing with him for passengers said he was friendly and hard-working as he jockeyed to fill his van. ''He talked to everyone,'' said Rachid Zouhair, who worked with him.

In March, Mr. Zazi filed for bankruptcy. He said on the application that he was unmarried and listed $51,000 in debts.

Several months later, his uncle said he kicked him out of their house, amid tiny stick trees on East Ontario Drive, for not paying rent. Mr. Zazi moved to an apartment complex two miles away, where his parents would join him at the end of July.

Federal agents, who have tracked Mr. Zazi for weeks, perhaps longer, provided their version of how he spent some of that time in their court filings. The work with bomb materials would not take place at Mr. Zazi's home, according to federal investigators, but in a hotel suite he rented in Aurora. They say chemical residue they found in the kitchen there indicates he tried to heat up the beauty supplies to help convert them into a bomb.

He had bought some bomb ingredients in beauty supply stores, the authorities said, after viewing instructions on his laptop on how to build such a bomb. When an employee of the Beauty Supply Warehouse asked about the volume of materials he was buying, he remembered Mr. Zazi answering, ''I have a lot of girlfriends.''

As he was completing his purchases, he was also completing his credit counseling, a requirement to have his bankruptcy discharged. A counselor signed the certificate for GreenPath on Aug. 13. Four days later, the bankruptcy case was closed.

He would return to the Aurora hotel on Sept. 6, apparently frantic for advice on how to complete the bomb-building, investigators contend. Then he rented a car from Hertz on Sept. 8. The next day, he packed his laptop into the car and started the ignition.

F.B.I. agents were watching. New York was 1,800 miles away. He drove through the night, arriving on Sept 10. Investigators say he may have hoped to set off bombs here. But he flew home on Sept. 12, perhaps alarmed to learn that the authorities were tracking his movements.

Mr. Zazi explained his trip to New York differently, telling reporters he had come back to clear up issues regarding his coffee cart.

He was certainly there, at the cart, on the morning of Sept. 11, eight blocks from the hole that had once been the World Trade Center. Old customers saw him. ''He was standing behind his friend,'' said Imran Khan, a transportation authority worker.

Mr. Zazi was joking and laughing, they said, the doughnut man once more.