When ABC News needed some samples of the same hair care products purchased by accused al Qaeda terror plotter Najibullah Zazi, I was dispatched in a taxi to a beauty supply store in New Jersey. My uneventful assignment would lead to a brush with FBI bomb squad agents and reveal just how broadly the authorities have cast their counter-terrorism net.
Zazi is accused of purchasing the hair products because they contain the chemicals necessary for the homemade bomb recipe the FBI says it found in his computer. At the time of his arrest, officials were convinced Zazi was prepared to set off bombs in several crowded areas throughout the United States. Government prosecutors believed he was "creating weapons of mass destruction."
We wanted to show the actual products on a report being filed by ABC News correspondent Brian Ross, so I set out to North Bergen, NJ to visit Sally Beauty Supply and Lowes Home Improvement stores.
My taxi driver waited for an hour in nearly deserted parking lots while I questioned store employees to make sure I was getting exactly what was on my list, down to the color, shape of the bottle and volume of each item. With the help of a very attentive employee at Sally Beauty Supply I was able to purchase everything we needed. I paid with an ABC News corporate credit card.
The next evening, after a long week at work, I trudged up to the top floor of my Brooklyn brownstone ready to relax. As I fumbled for my keys I noticed a business card tucked between my door and the frame with a hand written note that read, "Please give me a call. You may have witnessed a crime. We need 10 minutes of your time. Thank you. (over) -->". When I flipped the card over, I was shocked by the information: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Bomb Technician.
I immediately started retracing my steps over the past couple of days, searching for anything that I could have possibly witnessed. I called my downstairs neighbor to ask if there had been any incidents in our neighborhood and if he had also been visited by the FBI. He told me nothing unusual had occurred in the neighborhood and that the agent had come about an hour before I arrived but was "only looking for you".
My hands were shaking as I dialed the agent's number. He thanked me for calling back and proceeded to ask me if I had been to a Sally Beauty Supply in the last couple of days.
When I told him yes, he informed me that there was a large investigation going on that I may have been aware of and said I might be able to help.
"Are you a stylist, or do you have a job that requires you to purchase such large quantities of chemical hair products?" he asked.
"No," I answered.
He then asked if they could speak with me as soon as possible, in person. I told him that I needed to speak with my job about when I could get time off to meet him and then phoned the Assignment Editor on duty at the ABC News desk.
After a long talk with Rhonda Schwartz, the senior investigative producer, we decided to let the correspondent, Ross, call the agent back and let him know precisely who we were and why we bought so many bottles of scalp conditioner, hair dye and highlight enhancers.
The FBI said I had triggered suspicions at the hair supply store for a number of reasons. Why was I in a Yellow Cab? Why did I spend so much money to purchase the items? Why did I come back for a few more bottles after the initial visit?
The agents were apparently also suspicious of me because the FBI was looking for a young, African-American woman that could fit the description of a Somali woman believed to be connected to Zazi. I am of Nigerian descent, in my mid-twenties, and am often still mistaken for a college student. Apparently I fit the profile perfectly.
Two hours later Rhonda called to tell me I was no longer being sought by the FBI for questioning. I let out the most relieved sigh I ever have.
Despite the fear of knowing that the "Feds" were after me and had been able to track me down through my credit card in less than 24 hours, I was able to reflect and actually marveled at the efficiency of the FBI. It is, in a way, comforting to know that they are on top of their responsibilities and makes me confident that they will continue to come closer to solving this investigation.