NEW YORK — The airport shuttle driver accused of plotting a bombing in New York had contacts with al-Qaida that went nearly all the way to the top, to an Osama bin Laden confidant believed to be the terrorist group's leader in Afghanistan, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, an Egyptian reputed to be one of the founders of the terrorist network, used a middleman to contact Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi, 24, as the latter hatched a plot to use homemade backpack bombs, perhaps on the city's mass transit system, the two intelligence officials said.
Intelligence officials declined to discuss the nature of the contact or whether Yazid contacted Zazi to offer simple encouragement or help with the bombing plot prosecutors say Zazi was pursuing.
"Zazi working with the al-Qaida core is exceptionally alarming," said Daniel Bynam of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "The al-Qaida core is capable of far more effective terrorist attacks than jihadist terrorists acting on their own, and coordination with the core also enables bin Laden to choose the timing to maximize the benefit to his organization."
U.S. intelligence officials and prosecutors say that Zazi was recruited and trained by al-Qaida and that he and others traveled last year to Pakistan to receive the training.
Prosecutors say Zazi, during meetings with federal investigators before his arrest last month, "admitted that he received instructions from al-Qaida operatives on subjects such as weapons and explosives" during his trip to Pakistan.
Zazi, who is being held without bail in New York while awaiting trial, has denied receiving al-Qaida training or visiting one of the group's training camps. He said before his arrest that he traveled to Pakistan to see his wife, who lives in Peshawar.