NEW YORK — A former yellow cab driver-turned-al-Qaida recruit testified for the first time Monday that he drove around New York City in early 2009 casing potential targets for a terrorist attack, including Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange.
Zarein Ahmedzay told a Brooklyn jury that he and two former high school classmates – Najibullah Zazi and Adis Medunjanin – also considered striking Penn Station or city movie theaters before settling on attacking Manhattan subway lines as suicide bombers.
Ahmedzay also recounted a meeting at an al-Qaida hideout in Pakistan, where the three agreed to become martyrs. Terror operatives encouraged the men to complete the mission before the end of George W. Bush's second term as president, he said.
"I told them we have come here to give our lives," Ahmedzay testified, "and asked them, `Are we going to accept it?'"
The testimony followed opening statements at the trial of Medunjanin, 27, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen who has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges. Zazi and Ahmedzay pleaded guilty and agreed to testify again Medunjanin in a bid for leniency.
Prosecutors alleged that after the three men received terror training, they slipped back into the United States and formed a sleeper cell of would-be suicide bombers that in 2009 nearly pulled off one of the most chilling terror plots since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The men "were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them – men, women and children," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam. "These men came so close – within days of carrying out this attack."
Defense attorney Robert Gottlieb countered by accusing the government of using "inflammatory rhetoric" about al-Qaida and terrorism to prevent jurors "from seeing the truth about this case." The lawyer conceded his client had sought to support the Taliban's struggle against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but denied he ever agreed to kill American civilians for al-Qaida.
"The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist," he said. "Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb the New York City subways."
Zazi and Ahmedzay admitted in their pleas that they wanted to avenge U.S. aggression in the Middle East. Ahmedzay testified Monday that Medunjanin encouraged him to follow a more radical form of Islam by giving him recordings of sermons of U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
"I became very radical in my views," he said.
While sitting in a car outside a Queens mosque, the three men "made a covenant to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahedeen against American forces," he said.
The men traveled in 2008 to Pakistan, where they met al-Qaida recruiters who told them they would be better suited for a suicide mission in the United States, the witness said. They were driven 10 hours away to a training facility protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades, AK-47s and other weapons, he said.
Zazi also is expected to testify about how, after relocating to the Denver area, he cooked up explosives and set out by car for New York City in September 2009 to carry out the attack. He was arrested after abandoning the plan and fleeing back to Colorado.
Another possible witness is Bryant Neal Vinas, a Long Island man who joined al-Qaida around the same time as the other men. Officials have credited Vinas with providing key intelligence about the terror group since his capture in 2008.
Meanwhile, Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said Monday that it had struck a rare deal with a convicted terrorist to provide possible testimony or other evidence for Medunjanin's trial. Saajid Badat, who was jailed in Britain in 2005 for his role in a 2001 plot to down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden inside shoes, had his jail term cut from 13 years to 11 years under the agreement.
___Associated Press writer David Stringer in London contributed to this report.