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New York Terrorism Suspect Pleads Guilty

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The man at the center of a suspected plot to bomb transportation targets in New York City pleaded guilty to terrorism charges today. Najibullah Zazi appeared in Brooklyn court to enter his plea. He faces life in prison.

NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following this story, and she joins us now. Dina, what did Zazi plead guilty to today?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: What's remarkable is that he appears to have pleaded guilty to all the charges that were leveled against him back in the fall when he was originally arrested. Conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support for a terrorist organization. He's going to be sentenced in June. And he faces life in prison without parole.

SIEGEL: Did you learn anything new about this case today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: There are some details that we didn't know before. For example, Zazi and others originally went to Afghanistan hoping to join the Taliban and fight U.S. forces there. And they flew to Pakistan at the end of August 2008 and ended up joining al-Qaida instead. They trained in Waziristan, which is that area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and apparently al-Qaida asked them to go back to the U.S. and conduct suicide operations, and apparently they agreed to do that.

And then we learned a little more about the plot. We knew that it was the subway that he was targeting here in New York, but now we know he had specific dates in mind to detonate bombs around September 14, 15 through 16.

SIEGEL: Why did he plead guilty? It doesn't seem that he got a very good deal in exchange for his plea.

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, he didn't get very much. I mean, two sources familiar with the case said that Zazi decided to plead guilty to protect his parents. His father was recently rearrested and released on bail. And apparently he was recently told that his mother could face criminal immigration charges. And apparently the combination of those two things were enough to motivate him to provide more information and plead guilty.

SIEGEL: The Obama administration has been under fire for reading terrorism suspects their rights and keeping their cases in civilian courts. How do you think this case plays into that debate?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's clearly what Attorney General Eric Holder was trying to do in its press conference. This is what he said.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): The point I have tried to make over these many months, and I think fairly consistently - and I think this demonstrates that - is that our federal civilian criminal justice system has the ability to incapacitate terrorists, has the ability to gain intelligence from those terrorists and is a valuable tool in our fight against terrorism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, I was talking to one former FBI official who told me what's missing in this whole debate over Miranda-izing a terrorism suspect is how much investigators really learn by building a rapport with these defendants. Just talking to them before they charge them gives investigators a really good idea of hard a case they are. Whether they really want to die for the cause or maybe aren't as hard over as they first seemed.

And that appears to be what happened with Zazi. He originally went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, not to join al-Qaida. And al-Qaida apparently convinced him to be a suicide or a bomber for them, and that's how this all happened.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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