NEW YORK — An Afghan immigrant who received explosives training from al-Qaida went from one beauty supply store to another, buying up large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and nail-polish remover, in a chilling plot to build bombs for attacks on U.S. soil, authorities charged Thursday.
Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old shuttle driver at the Denver airport, was indicted in New York on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Investigators found bomb-making instructions on his computer's hard drive and said Zazi used a hotel room in Colorado to try to cook up explosives a few weeks ago before a trip to New York.
The extent of Zazi's ties to al-Qaida was unclear, but if the allegations prove true, this could be the first operating al-Qaida cell to be uncovered inside the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Over the past few days, talk of the possible plot set off the most intense flurry of national terrorism warnings since the aftermath of 9/11.
Prosecutors said they have yet to establish exactly when and where the Zazi attacks were supposed to take place. But Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington, "We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted."
A law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Thursday that Zazi had associates in New York who were in on the plot.
Zazi was arrested in Denver last weekend and was charged along with his father and a New York City imam with lying to investigators. Authorities said in the past few days that they feared Zazi and others might have been planning to detonate homemade bombs on New York trains, and warnings went out to transit systems, stadiums and hotels nationwide.
Explosives built with hydrogen peroxide killed 52 people four years ago in the London transit system. They are easy to conceal and detonate, and last week's warnings asked authorities to be on the lookout for them.
A law enforcement official said Thursday that authorities had been so worried about Zazi – and that his Sept. 10 trip to New York City coincided with a visit by President Barack Obama – that they considered arresting him as soon as he reached the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation continues.
Zazi left a Denver court Thursday without commenting and will be transferred soon to New York. He and his lawyer have denied he is a terrorist.
In unrelated terrorism cases elsewhere around the country Thursday:
_ Michael C. Finton, a 29-year-old man who idolized American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh, was arrested after attempting to detonate what he thought was a bomb inside a van outside a federal courthouse in Springfield, Ill., officials said. FBI agents had infiltrated the alleged plot months ago.
_ A 19-year-old Jordanian was arrested after placing what he thought was a bomb at a downtown Dallas skyscraper, federal prosecutors said. The decoy device was provided by an undercover FBI agent. Federal officials said the case against Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, who is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, is unrelated to the Illinois case.
_ Two North Carolina men under arrest since July on international terrorism charges were also accused by prosecutors of plotting to kill U.S. military personnel.
In the Zazi case, a government motion seeking to deny bail laid out a chronology of the alleged scheme, which prosecutors said had been in the works for as much as a year. The court papers filed in Brooklyn federal court also refer to "others" who bought bomb materials with Zazi.
According to prosecutors' account, Zazi – a legal U.S. resident who immigrated in 1999 – began plotting as early as August 2008 to "use one or more weapons of mass destruction." That was when he and others traveled from Newark, N.J., to Pakistan, where he received the explosives training, prosecutors said.
Within days of returning from Pakistan in early 2009, he moved to the Denver suburb of Aurora, where he used a computer to research homemade bomb ingredients and to look up beauty supply stores where he could buy them, according to prosecutors.
During the summer, Zazi and three unidentified associates bought "unusually large quantities" of hydrogen peroxide and acetone – a flammable solvent found in nail-polish remover – from beauty supply stores in the Denver area, prosecutors said.
A second law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said associates of Zazi visited Colorado from New York to help him buy the chemicals. The official said they used stolen credit cards to make the purchases and then returned to New York.
Security video and receipts show that some of the purchases were made near a Colorado hotel, according to court papers. On Sept. 6 and 7, Zazi checked into a suite at the hotel with a kitchen and a stove, the papers say. He tried to contact an unidentified associate "seeking to correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives."
"Each communication," the papers say, was "more urgent than the last. ... Zazi reportedly emphasized in the communication that he needed the answers right away."
FBI explosives testing later found residue in the vent above the stove, authorities said.
On Sept. 8, court papers say, Zazi searched the Internet for home improvement stores in Queens before driving a rental car for a two-day trip to the city. The visit triggered a series of searches in Denver and New York City over the past two weeks.
Authorities seized backpacks, cell phones and a scale in recent raids on a Queens neighborhood that Zazi visited. And beauty supply store employees in New York and the Denver suburbs said authorities had been there recently asking whether anyone had come in buying a lot of hydrogen peroxide or acetone.
At Beauty Supply Warehouse in suburban Denver, Paul Phillips said a co-worker spoke to the FBI and told them he had sold chemicals to Zazi. Company president Karan Hoss said the firm turned over security video of a man matching Zazi's description to the FBI.
A check of sales found that someone bought a dozen 32-ounce bottles of a hydrogen peroxide product in July. More was purchased in late August, Hoss said.
Hoss said the purchases didn't raise any alarms: "Suppliers buy that quantity all the time," he said.
Zazi's father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, and the imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, also appeared in court Thursday. Mohammed Zazi, 53, was ordered freed under court supervision in Denver until an Oct. 9 hearing. Afzali, who was accused of tipping off the Zazis to the federal probe against them in a tapped telephone call, was released in New York on $1.5 million bail.
Afzali's attorney, Ron Kuby, denied his client knew anything about a plot.
"Obviously, the government would not be consenting to bail if it thought he was involved in a terrorism conspiracy," he said.
Barrett reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steven K. Paulson and P. Solomon Banda in Denver and Samantha Gross in New York contributed to this report.