NEW YORK — If Najibullah Zazi had any doubts he was a prime suspect in a terror investigation, authorities say, they were quickly erased by a local imam.
"They came to ask me about your characters," the Queens imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, told Zazi in a Sept. 11 phone conversation, according to a secret recording. "They asked me about you guys."
The "they" referred to in a recently unsealed criminal complaint were New York Police Department detectives who had considered Afzali a reliable ally. At least one works for a division that operates independently from an FBI-run terrorism task force.
Afzali's alleged tipoff has fueled questions about whether the NYPD, without the FBI's knowledge, inadvertently helped blow the surveillance of Zazi by reaching out to the imam and compromised a bomb plot probe at a sensitive stage.
The complaint also suggests investigators may have tipped off Zazi, a 24-year-old Denver airport shuttle driver, by covertly towing and searching a rental car he was using on a trip to New York City that heightened fears of an attack.
The maneuver, authorities say, produced evidence of bomb-making instructions retrieved from a hard drive on Zazi's laptop.
But it also apparently didn't get by the suspect: In the same conversation with Afzali, Zazi said the car's disappearance convinced him he was being watched.
NYPD and FBI officials have denied reports that the potential missteps forced their hand in a series of high-profile raids last week, prompted Zazi to abort his New York visit and caused friction between the two agencies, which work together through the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Asked Tuesday if he had any concerns about the handling of Afzali, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly declined comment on the investigation beyond what was in court papers, saying the probe was classified.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne insisted Tuesday that the NYPD and the FBI "worked closely and successfully in this case, and in scores of others." He declined further comment.
Zazi, his father and Afzali were arrested over the weekend on charges they lied to the FBI. But none was charged with terrorism, and the scale and scope of the plot remains unclear. They have denied the charges against them.
Afzali's attorney, Ron Kuby, has said his client had a history of giving police information as a "community liaison" and religious leader in his neighborhood.
Kuby claimed Afzali was doing their bidding by talking to Zazi and finding out what he was up to.
"My client is being blamed for an investigation botched by the authorities," Kuby said Tuesday. "It's much easier to blame some obscure Afghan imam."
The complaint, filed in federal court in Brooklyn, says NYPD detectives first visited Afzali at his Queens home on Sept. 10.
Around that time, the public was unaware that federal authorities were tracking a suburban Denver man with possible links to al-Qaida who had driven to New York City – Zazi. The complaint says that unnamed detectives showed Afzali photos of Zazi and that Afzali admitted he recognized him.
Kuby said one of the detectives was his client's usual police contact, an investigator assigned to the police department's Intelligence Division, not the terrorism task force.
The day after police spoke to Afzali, the FBI intercepted his phone call with Zazi discussing the NYPD's inquiry. The next day, Afzali's lawyer said, his client had his first-ever contact with the FBI, when he agreed to answer questions at their Manhattan headquarters.
On Sept. 14, Afzali also agreed to a search of his home, then gave DNA samples and a written statement on Sept. 17, the attorney said.
Afzali was arrested on Sunday on charges he lied in the statement by denying that he had tipped off Zazi.
Barrett reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.