By James Davis, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Public Safety; Chair, Governors’ Homeland Security Advisors’ Council; and Special Agent in Charge (Retired), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Denver, Colorado
n Friday, November 16, 2012, Adis Medunjanin was sentenced to life in federal prison for his involvement in a plot to bomb the Manhattan subway system in New York City on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.1
That plot, masterminded by Najibullah Zazi and involving a third conspirator, Zarein Ahmedzay, represents the only known al Qaeda–directed plot on U.S. soil since 9/11. The investigation that uncovered and disrupted it was a masterpiece of cooperative efforts at the federal, state, and local levels. It demonstrates how far we have come since the days prior to 9/11.
In September 2009, when he was arrested by U.S. officials, Zazi had just turned 24 years old. He was born in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border where true nationality is hard to define. As a boy, he followed his father to New York where he grew up a secular Muslim in Flushing, Queens, New York. There was little in his childhood that would indicate that he would later become an al Qaeda operative. As U.S. involvement in the Afghan War intensified, Zazi became increasingly impacted by what he saw as American aggression and violence against innocent Afghan civilians.
Zazi began to spend more time at the Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddiquer, a mosque in Flushing where he fell under the influence of radical Islamic fundamentalists. Zazi felt that the U.S. involvement in the war was wrong and, as time passed, felt that he was obligated to do his part to end it.
As a permanent resident alien of the United States, Zazi had the freedom to travel back and forth to Pakistan, which he did on at least two occasions. During his first trip, he wed his first cousin in a prearranged marriage. She remained in Pakistan and bore him two children there.
On his second visit, he travelled with Ahmedzay and Medunjanin with the intent of joining Afghan rebels in the fight against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Thwarted in their efforts to cross the Afghan border and join the mujahideen (guerrilla fighters especially in the Middle East), they drew the attention of senior al Qaeda commanders. Recognizing Zazi’s and his comrades’ ability to travel freely in and out of the United States, those commanders advised that the three could be of more value to the cause through action in the United States.
Zazi, Ahmedzay, and Medunjanin received al Qaeda terrorist training. As a result of relentless attacks by U.S. drones, al Qaeda training was no longer the boot camp–type training conducted in camps like those in al Qaeda’s propaganda tapes. Instead, the three men received training in a home and were allowed outside for weapons familiarization only in brief intervals.
Zazi was singled out for more specialized training. He was schooled in the art of making explosives. Triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a potent and volatile explosive, was a favorite among al Qaeda bomb makers. It is relatively easy to make from items that can be purchased in retail outlets in the United States. Zazi took pages of handwritten notes that he scanned and emailed to himself.
In January 2009, after having been in the United States for less than two weeks, Zazi moved with his father to Colorado to open an airport shuttle service at Denver International Airport. Zazi filled out the appropriate forms and was granted an airport access identification card.
While in Colorado, Zazi began to develop his plan. He decided on a target in New York City. In a suicide attack set to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zazi, Ahmedzay and Medunjanin would board separate subway trains crowded with rush hour traffic in Manhattan and detonate backpacks filled with explosives. Zazi believed that such an attack would bring the war in Afghanistan home to Americans, turn public opinion, and ultimately bring an end to U.S. involvement in the war.
In late August, Zazi began to gather the supplies that he needed to construct his explosives. He purchased large bottles of hydrogen peroxide at a beauty supply warehouse in Aurora, Colorado, and the other components at a local Home Depot.
He rented a room at an all-suite hotel, which included a small kitchenette where he could increase the concentration of the hydrogen peroxide by boiling it down. Zazi struggled with his recipe and had trouble combining the appropriate quantities for his mixture. Frustrated, on September 6, he sent the following email message to a contact in Pakistan: “I need a amount of the one mixing of (flour and ghee oil) and I do not khow [sic] the amount.”2
On September 7, 2009, growing impatient, Zazi sent two additional emails to the same contact. The second one, “Plez reply to what I asked u right away. The marriage is ready flour and oil,” was sent two hours after the first one. And, “Me and friends r all ok and plz sends me details about Right away plz [sic].”3
These three emails represent the first point at which Zazi came to the attention of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
It was Labor Day. Except for a skeleton crew, the Denver FBI Office was empty. The first call came in to the Joint Terrorism Task Force Supervisor John Scata. The Counterterrorism Division told Scata that he needed to go to the office immediately to review classified traffic. Scata had been through this drill many times before and had grown accustomed to the notion that the traffic would not constitute the emergency that FBI headquarters had portrayed.
However, what Scata read made him realize that this was extraordinary. The U.S. Intelligence Community had intercepted messages directed to a known “bad guy” email address—an address known to be affiliated with the operational arm of al Qaeda. The messages had originated in Aurora, Colorado. What was most chilling though was the language used in the email. It is well-known in the counterterrorism arena that “marriage” refers to suicide attacks and that discussion of mixes or cake referred specifically to the explosives. Of additional concern was Zazi’s reference to “friends.” This was clearly a reference to coconspirators, but questions of who they were, where they were, and how many of them there were remained unanswered.
Scata wasted no time. He immediately summoned his squad from their Labor Day festivities and began a 24-hour surveillance on Zazi. He told his squad that this was no drill; they were following an operational al Qaeda terrorist.
By the following day, the FBI in Denver had instituted a 24/7 command post operation. Leave was cancelled, other cases were suspended, and agents and analysts were assigned to 12-hour shifts. Resources from the FBI headquarters and other field divisions began to pour into Denver to assist with the investigation. Special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams were rallied a short distance from Zazi’s home with instructions to attempt to interdict if the investigation indicated that Zazi was about to become operational.
Analysts worked around the clock on classified and unclassified systems in an attempt to learn all there was to know about Zazi, his family, and his associates. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman, Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, and Colorado State Patrol Colonel Jim Wolfinbarger—all members of the JTTF Executive Board—were read in on the threat. Grasping the serious nature of the threat, each law enforcement leader pledged all available resources to assist in the investigation.
Colonel Wolfinbarger, who had operational command over the state’s fusion center, the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC), put the resources of the CIAC at the disposal of the FBI.
Also within the first 24 hours of the investigation, Zazi had rented a car and was driving, in excess of 100 miles per hour east from Denver on Interstate 70. The FBI contacted the Colorado State Patrol, which was able to stop Zazi just west of the Kansas border. Zazi explained to the trooper that he was on his way to New York to check on his coffee cart business. The trooper was able to gauge Zazi’s demeanor and glance around the inside of the passenger compartment of his vehicle, but not much else.
The investigation was conducted at a frenzied pace. Authorities knew that Zazi intended to go operational and that his intended attack was imminent. They also knew that Zazi worked at the Denver International Airport and had an identification card that permitted him access to the airport. Unknown, however, were his target or targets and the number or identities of the others in his cell. Law enforcement believed Zazi was headed to New York, but whether he was headed there to conduct an attack or was running from something he had set in motion in Denver was not clear.
As the investigation progressed, the JTTFs in Denver and in New York worked closely together to identify Zazi’s associates, including Ahmedzay and Medunjanin. They found evidence of their travel together to Pakistan. In New York, Zazi’s rental car was towed from a street parking spot and searched. Agents found his laptop computer in the trunk. A search of his hard drive revealed the bomb-making notes that Zazi had taken in Pakistan and emailed to himself.
Investigators now had the emails sent to a known operational element of al Qaeda, with its clearly coded language. They knew that Zazi and at least two associates had traveled to Pakistan. And now, they had Zazi’s notes that explained in detail the process for producing the TATP.
Intense surveillance, along with contact by law enforcement with an associate of Zazi, revealed to Zazi that the FBI was aware of his plan. He decided to abort the strike and return to Denver. Again, however, his motive for leaving New York was unknown to authorities.
In New York, in concert with the New York City Police Department, the FBI determined that a preemptive strike was necessary. SWAT teams, evidence response teams, JTTF agents, and task force officers were all assembled to conduct late-night raids on the homes of Zazi’s New York associates. Searches of those residences revealed evidence of his plan. Several brand-new backpacks were seized from one of the residences, leading investigators to believe that the attack could have been a suicide attack similar to the 2005 attacks in London.
While some evidence was recovered, officials still lacked specificity on Zazi’s plan. More importantly, they lacked sufficient evidence to make arrests with any assurance that they were taking out the entire cell.
The raids conducted in New York also alerted the media to the threat. The response of the media in New York and in Denver was unprecedented. Information indicating that Zazi was at the center of the investigation leaked quickly. He became subject to intensive media pressure. News crews camped outside his residence. Reporters knocked at his door requesting interviews. It became clear to Zazi that he could not return to his normal life in Denver.
Reeling under the intense media scrutiny, Zazi contacted a lawyer. Through his lawyer, Zazi requested an interview with the FBI. Zazi intended to talk to the FBI to “clear his name.” Over three days, Zazi met with FBI agents. At the start of the interview, Zazi denied any terrorist connections. It was not long, however, before Zazi began confessing to many of the details of his trips to Pakistan and training by al Qaeda.
The FBI was concerned about how easily it had seemed to extract the confession of Zazi. He had essentially admitted to being an al Qaeda terrorist in the first interview. The worry was that he had come in to distract investigators from other operatives who might have been actively preparing an attack.
In fact, in Zazi’s initial interviews with the FBI, he refused to provide information on other members of his cell. As he began to feel pressure to identify them, he stopped cooperating. Having delayed his arrest in hopes of continued cooperation, the FBI arrested Zazi in his home on September 19, 2009, on a charge of lying to federal agents in a matter of international and domestic terrorism. Zazi’s father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, was taken into custody on those charges as well.
After his arrest in Denver, Zazi was flown to New York and held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. He was indicted in New York on September 22 in a superseding indictment charging him with conspiracy and attempt to use weapons of mass destruction.
Within a month, Zazi resumed his cooperation, eventually providing enough information to indict Ahmedzay and Medunjanin.
On February 22, 2010, Zazi pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction (explosive bombs) against persons or property in the United States and conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support to al Qaeda. Two months later, Ahmedzay plead guilty to the same charges.
Both Zazi and Ahmedzay testified for the prosecution in Medunjanin’s trial in April 2012. They provided details of their trip to Pakistan, their attempt to enter Afghanistan to join the Taliban, and their training at the direction of al Qaeda. At the conclusion of the four-week trial, the jury needed just one day to find Medunjanin guilty of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to commit murder of U.S. military personnel abroad, providing and conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda, receiving military training from al Qaeda, conspiring and attempting to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries, and using firearms and destructive devices in relation to these offenses.
Medunjanin‘s sentencing leaves only the sentencing of Zazi and Ahmedzay to conclude what is likely the United States’ most successful domestic counterterrorism operation. It should serve as a blueprint for the successful integration of resources from local, state, and federal law enforcement as well as the U.S. Intelligence Community in addressing the most significant threats against U.S. national security.
The Value of Fusion Centers
The investigation of Zazi and his cell not only established a protocol for the successful integration of resources in addressing a terrorist threat but also was the first opportunity to highlight the value of fusion centers in the counterterrorism arena.
During the Zazi investigation, when the FBI determined that Zazi had been buying hydrogen peroxide from beauty supply stores, it became an investigative priority to determine if there had been other large purchases of hydrogen peroxide elsewhere in the state. Using the Colorado state fusion center’s network of terrorism liaison officers (TLOs), the FBI was able to immediately access hundreds of officers in the most remote parts of the state. These officers were tasked to contact local beauty supply stores in an effort to determine if there were other suspicious purchases. Later, when trying to determine whether Zazi and his coconspirators had hidden caches of explosives or weapons, the TLO network was again utilized to identify and canvas storage facilities throughout the state.
The use of TLOs (sometimes referred to as intelligence liaison officers), coordinated through state fusion centers, adds significantly to the counterterrorism apparatus within the United States. TLOs are first responders, primarily police officers and firefighters, who receive specialized training in terrorist traits and practices and in recognizing warning signs of terrorism and details on the conduct of federal terrorism investigations. TLOs then act as force multipliers for the JTTF—the eyes and ears in the most remote parts of the state. Colorado’s TLO program now claims more than 700 active members who in regular communication with the CIAC receive and report terrorism-related as well as other nonterrorism, criminal, and public safety information.
Lacking a TLO program and a state fusion center to operate it, the FBI would have to dedicate agents or task force officers to travel throughout the state to conduct that investigation. Or, at the very least, the agency would have to contact individual departments across the state, requesting that they assist with the investigation. Either way, it would have required a diversion of precious resources from other critical investigative endeavors.
Ironically, a little more than one month prior to Medunjanin’s sentencing, on October 3, 2012, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) issued a report that was highly critical of state and local fusion centers, saying in its press release that accompanied the report, “[S]tate and local intelligence ‘fusion centers’ [have] not yielded significant useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts.”4
It is interesting that the PSI report specifically addressed the Zazi investigation, concluding, “This examination does not diminish Colorado officials’ support of the FBI investigation into Najibullah Zazi. But it does indicate that much of the contribution attributed to CIAC came from state troopers and could have—hopefully, would have—occurred absent a fusion center.”5
While Colorado officials are moved by the recognition of their efforts, they would remind the subcommittee that “hope” is not a strategy. Breakdowns in cooperative efforts have plagued law enforcement for years and were at the very heart of the criticism of the FBI and other federal agencies in post-9/11 studies and investigations.
While it is true that there currently exists a strong collaborative relationship among the Denver office of the FBI and the Colorado State Patrol, it is naive to think that, outside of a formal system, law enforcement and intelligence agencies will naturally and seamlessly cooperate in dealing with the most serious threats that face U.S. security.
In the executive summary of the 9/11 report, the commission said:
[N]o agency can solve the [information sharing] problems on its own—to build the network requires an effort that transcends old divides, solving common legal and policy issues in ways that can help officials know what they can and cannot do. Again, in tackling information issues, America needs unity of effort.6
The operation of fusion centers that link agencies through full-time or part-time presences, with established and formal protocols as well as memoranda of understanding, creates such a network. Fusion centers provide a formalized environment allowing the successful integration of law enforcement and intelligence community resources, as called for by the 9/11 Commission Report.
During the Zazi investigation, the CIAC performed precisely this mission. It served as the link between federal agencies and their state and local counterparts.
The PSI report seems to focus on analysis of counterterrorism intelligence information. In so doing, it misses the true value of fusion centers, which is to fuse intelligence and disseminate it to the appropriate authorities. Fusion centers collect information from across the state, serving as a single point of contact for local agencies, and transmit that information to the JTTF. And, as in the Zazi investigation, they do the reverse, transmitting requests for information from the JTTF to locals and coordinating the response.
Detailed analysis of counterterrorism intelligence is not the role of the fusion center. In such cases, the FBI and the DHS have sufficient analytical resources to address threat information. In fact, the last thing that the JTTF wants is for a fusion center to delay the reporting of terrorism intelligence by conducting its own analysis of the information.
The true purpose of the PSI report was to expose wasteful spending in the State Homeland Security Grant Program. In our current fiscal state, this is truly a laudable endeavor. It would be difficult to argue that, in the years immediately following 9/11, there was not a rush to spend money without the formulation of a solid, long-term plan. However, targeting the funding of fusion centers, readily identified by law enforcement agencies and organizations across the board as effective and important tools in combatting both terrorism and other crime, is misguided.
A knowledgeable review of the facts of the Zazi investigation serves to directly contradict the findings of the Senate report. It makes little sense to seek to end vital federal funding for a program that played an important role in the country’s most successful domestic counterterrorism operation. ♦
1United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York, “Al-Qaeda Operative Sentenced to Life Imprisonment in One of the Most serious Terrorist Threats to the United States Since 9/11,” press release, November 16, 2012, http://www.justice.gov/usao/nye/pr/2012/2012nov16b.html (accessed December 21, 2012).
2From the author’s notes, confirmed with Supervisory Special Agent John Scata, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Denver, Colorado.
4Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “Investigative Report Criticizes Counterterrorism Reporting, Waste at State and Local Intelligence Fusion Center,” Wednesday, October 3, 2012, http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/investigations/media/investigative-report-criticizes-counterterrorism-reporting-waste-at-state-and-local-intelligence-fusion-centers (accessed December 11, 2012).
5United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers, October 3, 2012, http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/download/?id=49139e81-1dd7-4788-a3bb-d6e7d97dde04 (accessed December 17, 2012).
6National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Executive Summary, 25, http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report_Exec.pdf (accessed December 17, 2012).
Please cite as:
James Davis, "The Role of the Fusion Center in Counterterrorism Operations," The Police Chief 80 (February 2013): 20–26.