At the time, then-Attorney General Eric Holder called it “one of the most serious terrorist threats” the nation had faced since Sept. 11.
On Thursday, a federal judge in New York gave Zazi what he described from the bench as a “once-unthinkable second chance” when he sentenced him to time served, meaning he could be released within “days,” according to his defense attorney.
That’s because Zazi – facing up to life in prison following his 2009 arrest -- pleaded guilty and began a decade of cooperation against al-Qaeda, according to prosecutors.
“Zazi has provided extraordinary cooperation, meeting with the government more than 100 times, viewing hundreds of photographs, and providing information that assisted law enforcement officials in a number of different investigations even where Zazi did not personally know the subjects of those investigations,” federal prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum.
In federal court in Brooklyn, New York on Thursday, Zazi conceded he committed “terrible crimes” when he plotted with two friends to blow up the NYC subways but told the judge he tried his best to “correct my horrific mistake” by cooperating over the last decade.
Zazi, 33, stood before the judge in a navy smock, shaved head and close-cropped beard transformed -- his attorney contended -- from a naive, uneducated 20-something to a “mature adult” who has “unequivocally repudiates radical Islam.”
Zazi said he was no longer the “naive, gullible” person who traveled to Pakistan in 2008 and trained with al-Qaeda. He said it is “unimaginable” to him now what he became involved with and he sought forgiveness.
Judge Raymond Dearie said a question lingered in his mind: “Has he rejected Satan?” The judge answered “I think you have.”
In imposing time served plus lifetime supervised release the judge noted “This once unthinkable second chance has come your way and you earned it.”
The judge added, when pressed by prosecutors to be thorough, “If you wish to appeal the sentence of the court you should have your head examined.”
The extent of Zazi’s cooperation has never been formally articulated. A sentencing memorandum prosecutors filed Wednesday is redacted but made clear Zazi has been a vital source for those in the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities who sought to understand al-Qaeda, its motivations and its methods.
“Once Zazi decided to cooperate in February 2010, he gave the government his full, complete cooperation,” according to court records. “He proffered at great length about every aspect of his conduct without minimizing his actions, nor were there any areas of questioning that Zazi refused to address,” the memo said, using to a common legal term for making an offer of information prior to any formal plea negotiations.
Zazi was born in Afghanistan, grew up in Peshawar in Pakistan and came to Queens when he was 14, according to officials. Zazi went to Flushing High School but did not graduate. He operated a coffee cart on Wall Street before a 2008 trip to Pakistan.
“While in Pakistan, Zazi and his co-conspirators joined al-Qaeda, received training in weapons and explosives, and agreed to conduct a terrorist attack in New York City,” federal prosecutors said.
In the last decade, Zazi has related his experience at an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, where he and his friends had gone -- thinking that they would join the Taliban. It was there that Zazi committed to the subway plot that unfolded in Colorado, where Zazi had been working as a shuttle bus driver at the Denver airport. It involved explosives made in a Aurora hotel room from beauty products and driven across the George Washington Bridge.
“Although the precise timing of the attacks had not been worked out,” federal prosecutors said Zazi and his accomplices “had agreed on the ultimate goal of detonating the bombs during suicide attacks in the New York City subway system.”
Zazi’s attorney William Stamper said that he expected that Zazi would be released in “days.”
Zazi is at least the third admitted terrorist from the New York City area to receive little or no additional prison time after cooperating with federal investigators. Zazi’s co-conspirator Bryant Neal Vinas, a former altar boy from Queens, and Zarein Ahmedzay, have both been released from prison after cooperating with authorities for years.
In a letter to the judge that was unsealed late Thursday, Zazi tells Dearie that he was radicallized by two friends who introduced him to the preaching of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American-turned-extremist-Islamic preacher and senior leader al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, AQAP, who was killed in American drone strikes in the Middle East in 2011.
Al-Awlaki's preaching was featured in numerous al-Qaeda propaganda videos aimed at radicalizing young Muslims around the world.
Zazi said in the letter that he was introduced to "the teachings of Anwar Al-Awlaki on the internet."
"Awlaki had won my sympathy and instilled a rage within me," Zazi contended. "His twisted and corrupted teachings of the Quran, I accepted, for I did not know better."
Zazi goes on to say that "Looking back, I can now see how gullible I was, actually living in an imaginary world."
"Your Honor, the uneducated are perfect targets for the unscrupulous. They take historical facts and contort them to their agenda, to motivate people to their will. My lack of education and the reverence surrounding Awlaki, an Islamic scholar, was enough to cause me to believe."
"And believe I did, for I nearly took my own life and the lives of innocents. But now I battle back with knowledge, I read diverse books on general knowledge and am constantly getting a deeper understanding of Islam, reading many different texts."
While incarcerated, Zazi said in the letter that he had earned a General Educational Developmment diploma, or GED, the general equivalent of a high school diploma.