WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is touting the case of an al-Qaida-linked Afghan immigrant who allegedly plotted an attack in New York as proof the U.S. intelligence community is making progress in the struggle to defeat the terror group.
According to officials, Najibullah Zazi, the 24-year-old Afghan immigrant under investigation, had ties to a senior al-Qaida leader and attracted the attention of the CIA through one of its sources. The CIA then alerted domestic agencies, including the FBI, according to intelligence officials familiar with the investigation.
Speaking Tuesday to employees at the National Counterterrorism Center, Obama said their service was evident in attacks that were never carried out.
"We've seen your success here in America in the last several weeks," he said while visiting the facility outside Washington. "You've stayed vigilant. You watched for signs. You stitched together the intelligence. You worked together, across organizations, as one team."
That work, Obama said, has made America safer.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday the alleged terror plot disrupted in New York was "one of the most serious in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001." He gave no indication when more arrests might be made.
Prosecutors claim Zazi, who allegedly received terror training at an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan, was planning to strike another New York City target on 9/11, this time with homemade bombs.
U.S. intelligence organizations first became aware of Zazi in late August, a senior administration official said. The intelligence and administration officials declined to offer more details on the operative and spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
"We're not commenting on that," said Wendy Aiello, a spokesman for Arthur Folsom, Zazi's lawyer in Denver.
The fact that intelligence officials learned of Zazi through a CIA source sheds more light on the government's claim that the charges against him are part of a broader, international case and begins to explain why the investigation triggered such a large offensive from the nation's intelligence community.
It also shows the case stems from the CIA's counterterrorism efforts to track al-Qaida rather than an investigation initiated in this country by someone's suspicious actions, like most other domestic terrorism cases handled by the FBI.
Obama began receiving briefings on the investigation in late August, updated at least daily and sometimes several times a day as intelligence officials were crafting their case against Zazi, senior administration officials said.
Zazi initially was characterized to Obama as a person of interest because of suspected involvement in terrorist activities, the officials said.
Federal agents began watching Zazi in Denver in early September. He drove a rental car to New York on Sept. 9, but left the city to return to Denver on Sept. 12 after learning that investigators were looking for him, prosecutors said. FBI agents raided three apartments in Queens two days after Zazi left the New York area.
Zazi and his lawyer agreed to meet with investigators at FBI offices in Denver on Sept. 16. After three days of meetings, Zazi was arrested and charged with lying to federal agents.
He remains held without bond and has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction. The charges related to his statements to investigators later were dropped.
Zazi is the only suspect publicly identified in the terror plot. More arrests are expected. Prosecutors have said three others in New York City worked with Zazi, although they do not currently pose a threat.
Officials said his training included instruction on how to make bombs from common supplies purchased at beauty supply stores.
Zazi, who moved to the U.S. with his family as a teenager, has denied any involvement in a terror plot.
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman in New York and Eileen Sullivan, Matt Apuzzo and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.