This Grey Dynamics Intelligence Report analyses the Operation High Rise/Zazi Bomb Plot of 2009. It will focus on what we can learn from the case and intelligence-centric lessons that can be applied to the al-Shabaab insurgency in Somalia for intelligence cooperation and surveillance.

Key Judgments

KJ-1. Operation High Rise’s success was likely increased by situational awareness through U.K./U.S. intelligence cooperation.

KJ-2. Intelligence surveillance almost certainly aided the failure of this plot. It is likely that surveillance awareness from authorities increased the likelihood of Zazi abandoning the plot.

KJ-3. Against al-Shabaab, increased intelligence cooperation has, and can continue to foil terror plots. Increased surveillance can increase uncertainty in terror plot perpetrators. Knowledge of deception methods can increase this uncertainty and can be used as a tool for preventative measures.

The Zazi Bomb Plot

Najibullah Zazi, with co-conspirators Adis Medunjanin and Zaarein Ahmedzay under leadership from al-Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan, plotted a suicide bombing in the New York’s underground subway.

  • In 2008 they had received weapons training by al-Qaeda in Waziristan, and further explosives training while being persuaded to carry out terror attacks in the U.S.
  • Al-Qaeda planners aimed to achieve maximum casualties; a consensus was reached that the ideal target would be the highly congested underground trains.
  • The plan was to attack the subway line in Times Square, on trains arriving and departing from the Grand Central Station.
  • Zazi fabricated triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosives. These are homemade explosives from concentrated hydrogen peroxide which Zazi had amassed from salon suppliers in Colorado. Two pounds were produced and transported to New York.
  • The planned date of the attack was between September 14th-16th during rush hour (08.00-10.00).

The Prevention

  • U.S. intelligence was unaware of the plot until August 2009. Zazi communicated via email with an al-Qaeda contact in Pakistan. The email was intercepted and relayed by British intelligence.
  • September 6th, 2009, 07.14 EDT. An email was logged in when picked up by GCHQ. The recipient at this time was known to U.S./U.K. intelligence services as al-Qaeda affiliated. The sender was “[email protected]” Najibullah Zazi. He had communicated with the recipient and indicated an imminent attack.
  • The FBI initiated Operation High Rise for surveillance on Zazi. On September 9th agents followed him driving from his home in Colorado to New York, where he arrived on September 10th.
  • Zazi crossed the George Washington Bridge coming into New York. Port Authority Police, under directions from the FBI, carried out an inspection but failed to find explosives and allowed him to continue his journey.
  • NYPD requested information from informant Ahmad Wais Afzali regarding Zazi. This was relayed to Zazi through his father. Zazi spoke twice with Afzali on September 11th, raising fears he that was under surveillance and mentioning that his car had been stolen.
  • FBI had taken the car in search of the explosives. They instead found nine pages of notes on bomb construction. Zazi had discarded the bombs shortly after arriving in New York, from fear of being under surveillance.
  • Abandoning the plot, Zazi flew back from New York to Denver. He was intercepted by FBI agents on September 16th. He was arrested and charged. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use explosives against persons or property in the United States, conspiracy to murder abroad (while in Afghanistan), and to providing material support to al-Qaeda.
  • Medunjanin and Ahmedzay were arrested in January 2010. They pleaded guilty after cooperation with Zazi led to their arrest.

Most cases are thwarted. In this case, the surveillance partially encouraged the “calling off,” of the terrorist plot. This is rare for U.S. domestic cases. Furthermore, it would be less likely to work with al-Shabaab abroad as the terror group is part of an insurgency and mentally prepared that its actions will be under surveillance.

Intelligence Cooperation

The U.S./U.K. intelligence cooperation, in this case, was an important factor in countering al-Qaeda’s counterintelligence measures in the email correspondence between Zazi and his Al-Qaeda connection. The U.K. bringing up the recipient’s relevance to U.S. intelligence awareness, provided instant warning when Zazi reached out via email. This initiated the FBI surveillance system that followed Zazi. There is a realistic probability that the absence of this knowledge could have allowed Zazi to proceed with a terror attack. This indicates the importance of intelligence sharing as a counterterrorism tool.