NEW YORK — A former airport shuttle driver accused of buying beauty supplies to make bombs for an attack on New York City subways pleaded guilty Monday, admitting he agreed to conduct an al-Qaida-led "martyrdom operation" because of U.S. involvement in his native Afghanistan.
Najibullah Zazi told a judge the terror network recruited him to be a suicide bomber in New York, where he went to high school and once worked a coffee cart just blocks from the World Trade Center site.
"I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the U.S. military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan," Zazi said in court.
The Associated Press learned earlier this month that the jailed Zazi had recently volunteered information about the bomb plot in the first step toward a plea deal. His cooperation suggests prosecutors hope to expand the case and bring charges against other suspects in one of the most serious terrorism threats in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the terror investigation is ongoing.
Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty to conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support for a terrorist organization. He faces a life prison sentence without parole at a sentencing in June.
The bombings "could have been devastating," Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington. "This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion, and it would have been deadly."
Zazi said in court he traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to join the Taliban and fight against the U.S. military but was recruited by the terrorist network in Peshewar and went into a training camp in Warziristan, a region of Pakistan where al-Qaida is known to operate.
Zazi said he received weapons training at the camp and learned about explosives. He also said in court that he had been in contact with al-Qaida operatives while in Pakistan, but he did not identify them.
"During the training, al-Qaida leaders asked us to return to the United States and conduct martyrdom operation," he said. "We agreed to this plan."
The Pakistan Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Zazi's case.
Zazi admitted using notes taken at the training camp to build homemade explosives with beauty supplies purchased in the Denver suburbs and cooked up in a Colorado hotel room. He then drove the materials to New York just before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
His plan was to assemble the bombs over the weekend and detonate them in the following days.
While entering the city, he was stopped by police for a routine traffic violation on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York. Suspicious officers allowed him to go free but kept a close watch on his movements.
"The plan was to conduct martydom operation on the subway lines in Manhattan as soon as the material was ready," he said, adding the attack involved a number of bombs.
Days later, authorities raided several Queens apartments, including a friend's home where Zazi had stayed.
Asked by federal Judge Raymond J. Dearie if he had been willing to be a suicide bomber, Zazi said, "Yes, your honor."
Sometime after the traffic stop, Zazi realized New York authorities were investigating him. "At that point, we threw away the detonator explosives and other materials," he said.
One of the people familiar with the investigation said that Zazi told prosecutors that he made roughly two pounds of a powerful and highly unstable explosive called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP.
The same explosive was used by would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2001 and the terrorists who carried out the London bombings in 2005 that killed 52 people. In those instances, TATP was not the main charge; it was the detonator.
One of the people familiar with the Zazi case told the AP that Zazi decided to cooperate after being warned that his mother could face criminal immigration charges. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is in progress.
After Monday's hearing, Zazi's attorney, William Stampur, would only say: "The plea speaks for itself."
The written plea agreement is sealed.
In Washington, Holder used the case to rebut Republican critics who have said the Democratic administration should try such terrorism suspects before military tribunals rather than through civilian courts.
"To take this tool out of our hands, to denigrate this tool, flies in the face of facts and is more about politics than it is about facts," Holder said at a news conference.
Others charged in the terror case include Zazi's father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, who was accused this month of trying to get rid of chemicals and other evidence.
After initially demanding that he be jailed in Brooklyn without bail, prosecutors agreed to a deal on Feb. 17 releasing him on $50,000 bond and allowing him to return to his home in suburban Denver.
By contrast, bond for a Queens imam charged with lying to the FBI about phone contact with Zazi when Zazi was in New York was set at $1.5 million. A friend of Zazi's, New York cab driver Zarein Ahmedzay, was jailed without bail on a similar lying charge.
Authorities say Ahmedzay and another former high school classmate of Zazi's, Adis Medunjanin, traveled to Pakistan with Zazi in 2008. Medunjanin has pleaded not guilty to charges he conspired to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and remains jailed.
Officials earlier confirmed reports week that Zazi's uncle had been arraigned on a felony count in secret – a sign that he also could be cooperating.
Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett and Pete Yost in Washington and Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.