NEW YORK — The full beard he wore at the time of his arrest well over two years ago was gone, replaced by closely cropped hair both on his face and head.
In an impassive monotone, Najibullah Zazi took the witness stand in federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday to begin recounting his role in what U.S. authorities have called one of the most ominous terror threats since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks: a foiled al-Qaida plot to spread death and destruction in the New York City subways with suicide bombers.
The seeds for the scheme were planted about five years ago with a discussion in the parking lot of a Queens mosque, where Zazi, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay worshipped together, Zazi said in his debut as a goverment witness at Medunjanin's trial.
The men made an oath to leave the United States for good and "fight alongside the Taliban," Zazi testified. He said they were inflamed by recordings of U.S.-born extremist Anwar al-Awlaki and other radical clerics.
Medunjanin believed, "Muslims should fight Americans — that it is their duty," said Zazi, an Afghan who spent his childhood in Pakistan before moving to New York City with his family in 1999.
He added that he was motivated in part by a belief that the culprit behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks was "America itself."
Zazi, 26, also testified that during a subsequent 2008 trip to Pakistan, the three Americans met a top al-Qaida operative they knew only as Hamad. Authorities say Hamad was Adnan Shukrijumah, a Saudi still listed on an FBI website as a fugitive who plotted attacks for al-Qaida worldwide.
Hamad told the three former high school classmates they were best suited for an operation on U.S. soil — an idea Zazi said they initially resisted.
"We thought it was a joke," he said, testifying at the trial of Medunjanin.
Medunjanin, 27, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges. He has denied he was ever part of an al-Qaida operation.
Authorities have portrayed Zazi as a homegrown terrorist who orchestrated the 2009 scheme to strap on suicide bomb vests and detonate them inside Manhattan subways. Both he and Ahmedzay pleaded guilty in 2010 and were jailed without bail after agreeing to become government witnesses in a bid for leniency.
On Monday, Ahmedzay testified how al-Qaida operatives recruited them in Pakistan and drove them 10 hours away to a compound protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades and other weapons, and ordered them to carry out an attack in New York City before the end of George W. Bush's second term as president, he said.
He also recalled returning to New York City and using his cab to drive around the city in early 2009 and casing potential targets for a terrorist attack, including Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange. The conspirators also considered striking Penn Station or city movie theaters before settling on attacking the subways during Ramadan, he said.
Zazi said Tuesday the men kicked around the idea of Walmart as a possible target as well, but didn't say if they had a specific store in mind.
The testimony ended Tuesday before Zazi could describe how he relocated to the Denver area, where he used beauty supplies to try and cook up explosives in a hotel room and set out for New York around the time of the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Once he suspected he was under surveillance, he aborted the mission and returned to Colorado, where he was arrested.
He was to return to the witness stand on Wednesday.
After 9/11, Shukrijumah was seen as one of al-Qaida's best chances to attack inside the U.S. or Europe, captured terrorist Abu Zubaydah told U.S. authorities. Shukrijumah studied at a community college in Florida but when the FBI showed up to arrest him as a material witness to a terrorism case in 2003, he already had left the country.
In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called Shukrijumah a "clear and present danger" to the United States.