NEW YORK — A New York man was convicted Tuesday of plotting an aborted suicide mission against New York City subways in 2009 – a case that featured the first-time testimony from admitted homegrown terrorists about al-Qaida's fixation with pulling off another attack on American soil.
A jury found Adis Medunjanin guilty of all counts for his role in a terror plot that federal authorities say was one of the closest calls since Sept. 11, 2001.
"This is Terrorism 101," Assistant U.S. Attorney Berit Berger said in closing arguments in federal court in Brooklyn. "The goal of this conspiracy was to kill as many people as possible."
Medunjanin could be ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 7.
Defense attorney Robert Gottlieb said he disagreed with the verdict and would appeal, but said the trial showed that the U.S. court system – not a military tribunal – is best for prosecuting terror crimes.
"The world and our national government including all our politicians should take note that this is the way crimes should be decided, not in a military commission, not in a star chamber, but in America," he said.
Medunjanin showed no visible reaction to the verdicts.
Gottlieb said Medunjanin asked his lawyer to "tell his family to be strong." His mother and sister testified during the trial of terrifying late-night raids by federal agents out for Medunjanin.
The defense admitted that the Bosnian-born Medunjanin wanted to fight for the Taliban, but they insisted he never agreed to spread death and destruction in the city where his family put down roots.
Medunjanin, 27, went overseas to fulfill a "romantic version of jihad. ... His plan and intent was to join the Taliban and stand up for what he believes in," defense attorney Robert Gottlieb said in his closing. "That was his purpose."
The government's case was built on the testimony of four men: two other radicalized Muslim men from Queens who pleaded guilty in the subway plot, a British would-be shoe bomber and a man originally from Long Island who gave al-Qaida pointers on how best to attack a Walmart store.
Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, both former high school classmates of Medunjanin, told jurors that the scheme unfolded after the trio traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to avenge the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
While receiving terror training at outposts in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, al-Qaida operatives encouraged the American recruits to return home for a suicide-bombing mission intended to spread panic and cripple the economy.
Among the targets considered were New York Stock Exchange, Times Square and Grand Central Terminal, the men testified.
In a later meeting in New York, the plotters decided to strap on bombs and blow themselves up at rush hour on Manhattan subway lines because the transit system is "the heart of everything in New York City," Zazi said.
Zazi told jurors how he learned to distill explosives ingredients from nail polish remover, hydrogen peroxide and other products sold at beauty supply stores. When leaving Pakistan, he relocated to Colorado, where he perfected a homemade detonator in a hotel room and set out for New York City by car around the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The plot – financed in part by $50,000 in credit card charges – was abandoned after Zazi noticed that everywhere he drove in New York, a car followed.
"I think law enforcement is on us," he recalled telling Ahmedzay. Later, he said he told Medunjanin in a text message, "We are done."
The other convicted terrorists were called as witnesses to give a rare glimpse into al-Qaida's training methods and the mindset of its leadership.
In a videotaped deposition made public for the first time during the trial, Saajid Badat recounted a clandestine meeting where Osama bin Laden explained the rationale behind the failed plot for Badat and Richard Reid to attack trans-Atlantic flights with bombs hidden in shoes.
Bin Laden "said the American economy is like a chain," the British man said. "If you break one – one link of the chain – the whole economy will be brought down. So after Sept. 11 attacks, this operation will ruin the aviation industry and in turn the whole economy will come down."
Bryant Neal Vinas, of Patchogue on Long Island, testified that he went to Pakistan in 2007 and later joined al-Qaida forces in an attack against American soldiers.
Vinas described how he suggested to others in al-Qaida in the summer of 2008 that they could plant explosives in suitcase aboard a Long Island Rail Road train or hide them inside a television that was being returned to a Walmart.
An attack on the popular retail outlet "would cause a very big economy hit," he said.