The Bankrupt Terrorist

11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The media reports of the plot being hatched by Najibullah Zazi offer tantalizing glimpses into his life,  his movements,  and his motivations.   

And while the proximity of his arrest to 9/11 makes it hard to engage the story as anything other than another terrorist plot, the story that begins to emerge is far more complex.

The two Zazi's that emerge, and eventually collide, represent two cultures and two identities trying to co-exist.

Consider if you can the two of them as two separate individuals for a moment.

There is the American Zazi, raised in Queens.  Brought up by his first generation hard working immigrant father.   A gregarious, outgoing, engaging man who dropped out of high school to make money.  He's described as 'not smart'  but hardworking by his uncle.  He takes a series of low paying service jobs, works harder than most,  and buys into the dream of his hard work providing him with the "American dream" of wealth and comfort.  

Along the way, the New York Times reports,  he becomes addicted to the free flowing credit card debt that was seemingly thrown at him.  From  a Discovery Card, to a Shell Card,  five more cards, and then Sony and Radio Shack.  He's working by day in the Coffee Cart on Wall Street as the affable doughnut man, and racking up a staggering $50,000 in credit card debt. Where did that money go?  Was it to creature comforts?  Was it to send to his family back home? Or, was it as is now suggested to fund his terrorist operations?

But the American Zazi hardly hides. In fact, just days after returning from Afghanistan, he's enrolled in a credit counseling program trying to work out his debts as he files for bankruptcy.  That hardly seems like the kind of thing someone who's got nefarious plans would do. Filling out papers that require you to swear to their accuracy before a federal judge seems hardly like the actions of shadowy figure. Yet while claiming his debts of $50,000 - he chooses to leave off the Federal Bankruptcy form that he is married and has two children in Afghanistan.  

The American Zazi is trying - it seems - to live by the rules and embrace the ideas that are American. Of course,  this may have all been an elaborate front. But if so,  the years and years of minimum wage work and mounting debt hardly seem like the ideal cover for someone trying to operate in a covert terrorist cell.  In fact,  they seem more like the actions of a struggling immigrant who - faced with obstacles both economic and educational -  went looking for something to believe in after his quest for riches in his coffee cart and credit cards didn't add up.

Now - examine the Afghani Zazi.  First of all,  he's in an arranged marriage to his second cousin.  He has two children.  Is his intention to work to bring them to America (as he was brought by his parents)?  If so,  he never mentions it and in fact seems to go out of his way to keep his life and his US life on separate tracks that will never cross.

The question that these two Zazi's raises is troubling - because one can imagine the number of immigrants facing diminished prospects in the current US economy as large and growing. Just as America's native-born and disenfranchised blue collar workforce finds itself angry and disappointed at the increase challenges to keep their economic head above water.

So,  who is Najibullah Zazi: an Afganhi infiltrator who's masqueraded as an American and was now ready to reign terror on his enemy,  or a disenfranchised immigrant who found himself unable to create a life that matched the fiction he'd been told America offered him?

There are facts that remain to be discovered.  Was he working alone, gathering chemicals from a beauty supply warehouse to build bombs that he alone planned to plant,  or was he part of a large conspiracy?  If larger,  was he the leader,  or merely an operative?  And more importantly,  for Muslims living in the US,  how can they manage the inherent conflicts between American culture and their faith?

The economic tailspin is leaving Americans with their faith in our system shaken and fearful of the future. What if working hard doesn't lead to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? What if our children won't have a better life than we do? Zazi isn't alone in finding himself discouraged and disillusioned - if that's what happened.  He's joined by auto workers,  tea bag protesters,  out of work white collar workers,  and lots of Americans who don't have a clear sense of what lies ahead.