NEW YORK – While FBI agents grilled a Denver airport shuttle van driver named Najibullah Zazi about a chilling terror plot to attack New York City subways in the fall of 2009, Zazi's father courted some trouble of his own by agreeing to answer a couple innocent-sounding questions about his family and acquaintances.
The son — one of the city's most notorious terrorism suspects since the Sept. 11 attacks — has since largely disappeared from the headlines after pleading guilty last year. But the father, though a far lesser player, is still feeling the full brunt of a federal probe that has shredded the fabric of a working-class clan of Afghani immigrants.
Mohammed Wali Zazi is set to go on trial Monday in federal court in Brooklyn on charges he obstructed justice by lying to investigators and by tampering with and destroying evidence to cover up his son's foiled scheme to spread terror and death beneath the streets of New York. The former New York City taxi driver denies the allegations.
The elder Zazi's brother-in-law is to take the witness stand against him as a key government witnesses. The trial also will feature testimony from federal agents likely to provide fresh insight into the frantic investigation of the al-Qaida sanctioned scheme.
In another twist, the defense has signaled it may call Najibullah Zazi.
The jailed son could "rebut any potential argument that Mohammed Zazi knew or had suspicions about Najibullah's plot," the defense said in court papers filed last month.
As part of a plea agreement, Najibullah Zazi is cooperating in an ongoing investigation of the subway plot and its roots in Pakistan, where Zazi said he went with two former high school friends in 2008 to seek training from the terror network.
He admitted that once back from Pakistan he tested peroxide-based explosive materials in a makeshift lab in a Denver suburb where he lived with his family in the fall of 2009 before traveling by car to New York to carry out the scheme. The FBI says agents already had him under surveillance at the time.
Zazi said the three men agreed to join in three coordinated suicide bombings on Manhattan lines during rush hour near the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks — what he called a "martyrdom operation."
"I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the U.S. military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan," said Zazi, who was born in Afghanistan before his family moved to Pakistan.
The plot was disrupted after police stopped Zazi's car as it entered New York. Officers let him go, but he was spooked by a phone call from a Queens imam warning that police were asking about him. He threw away his explosives materials and rushed back to Colorado.
The 55-year-old father and a lawyer were accompanying Zazi a few days later when he agreed to be interviewed by the FBI. The father soon learned his son wasn't the only one coming under intense scrutiny.
Prosecutors allege that during questioning, Mohammed Wali Zazi denied knowing the Queens imam, unaware that the FBI had evidence that they were in touch by phone around the time the son aborted his mission. They also have accused him of lying about his nephew by saying he was one of his six children — something he had also claimed on immigration papers.
After several other family members were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, Zazi was arrested and initially charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice by conspiring to destroy or hide "glasses, masks, liquid chemicals and containers" that were evidence in the case. Late last year, prosecutors added additional obstruction counts related to the alleged lies to investigators.
In April, prosecutors revealed in court papers that Zazi's brother-in-law, Naqib Jaji, had secretly pleaded guilty to charges he helped destroy the evidence and agreed to cooperate.
Jaji had been widely quoted in early press accounts about the investigation, saying it was "impossible" Najibullah Zazi could be a terrorist.
Zazi has been free on bail in Colorado, where he once ran a small limo service. He's now so destitute that the judge agreed to have the government pay for his air travel to New York to face trial.
The defense says the father hasn't spoken to his son in nearly two years.
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