NEW YORK — The Afghan immigrant at the center of what the authorities described as one of the most serious threats to the United States since 9/11 pleaded guilty Monday to terrorism charges in what he said was an al-Qaida plot to detonate a bomb in the New York subway.
Najibullah Zazi admitted that he came to New York last year near the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to kill himself and others on the subway using a homemade bomb. He characterized the plot as a "martyrdom operation" that he was just days away from executing when he said he realized he was under government surveillance.
Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to charges that included conspiracies to use weapons of mass destruction and to commit murder in a foreign country, and to provide material support for a terrorist organization. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
In recent weeks, Zazi — who was born in Afghanistan, raised in Pakistan and later attended high school in Queens — had begun providing information to prosecutors as part of the initial stages of an agreement that led to his guilty plea.
There have been a number of additional arrests in the case, including his father, his uncle and two of his Queens classmates. Zazi agreed to cooperate in part out of concern that a widening inquiry would result in more charges against his relatives, including his mother. The plea agreement was sealed by Judge Raymond Dearie, but the arrangement suggested that prosecutors believe Zazi can be a valuable source of information.
On its own, though, the guilty plea marks the successful prosecution of a terrorist in an advanced plot in which explosive materials similar to those used in the 2005 London subway and bus attacks were actually brought into New York. In some other terror cases, plotters appeared to lack the materials or knowledge to make good on their threats.
Zazi is scheduled to be sentenced on June 25.
Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference in Washington that the Zazi cases represented one of the most serious threats to the United States since the 9/11 attacks. Holder, who has faced criticism by some who favor prosecuting more terror suspects before military tribunals, repeated his defense of the civilian court system as "an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists." He said it "contains powerful incentives to induce pleas that yield long sentences and gain intelligence."