By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two members of a plot to carry out suicide attacks on New York City subways said their third accused co-conspirator provided early leadership but was later sidelined from decisions after rifts began to form, according to testimony in federal court.
Najibullah Zazi, 27, and Zarein Ahmedzay, 27, testified against Adis Medunjanin, 28, who is on trial in federal court. Medunjanin faces life in prison on charges of conspiring to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, providing support to al Qaeda and attempting to commit suicide attacks in New York City.
Zazi and Ahmedzay, both Afghan-born, have pleaded guilty and are testifying against Bosnian-born Medunjanin as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors. Zazi, a permanent U.S. resident, and Ahmedzay, a U.S. citizen, also face life in prison but have yet to be sentenced.
Zazi and Ahmedzay provided accounts of how the three high school friends from the New York City borough of Queens traveled to Pakistan in 2008 and came back to the United States planning suicide attacks in New York City at al Qaeda's behest.
At first, it was Medunjanin who was picked to "be a leader" for their overseas trip, thanks to his deep understanding of Islam, Zazi said. They decided to seek entry into Afghanistan, where they hoped to join the Taliban, Ahmedzay and Zazi said.
But once there, their plans changed, the two men testified. Denied entry into Afghanistan, they instead went to an al Qaeda training compound in the northern Pakistan region of Waziristan, according to their testimony.
There, Zazi and Medunjanin clashed repeatedly, Ahmedzay said. More than once, Ahmedzay had to step in and break up physical fights that began when Zazi criticized Medunjanin for matters such as drinking tea out of a soda bottle or not eating his food in the regional manner, Zazi said.
"It was my mistake," Zazi said. "I probably hurt his feelings during the trip by accusing him of not doing things right."
Zazi said he approached an al Qaeda leader at the compound and suggested Ahmedzay be made the group's leader instead.
While at the camp, the three men were persuaded by al Qaeda leaders to change their plan, according to testimony. Instead of joining the Taliban in Afghanistan, they should return to the United States and carry out attacks there, both men testified.
Medunjanin returned to the United States in September 2008, and Zazi and Ahmedzay flew back separately in January 2009, according to testimony. Ahmedzay said he considered dropping out of the plot after his wife threatened to kill herself and their child if he took part, but later changed his mind and recommitted himself after reading an unspecified verse from the Koran, he testified.
As the plot took shape, Zazi and Ahmedzay decided it was no longer necessary to include Medunjanin in "anything having to do with the preparation (of the explosives) and the selection of the target," said Medunjanin's attorney, Robert Gottlieb. Ahmedzay agreed with Gottlieb's description.
"My role was that I'd look for targets," Ahmedzay said. "Najibullah would gather materials and make the bomb. And Adis agreed to be one of the bombers."
Ahmedzay said Medunjanin still intended to be one of the three suicide bombers and was committed to the plot until September 10, 2009, when, suspecting they were under federal surveillance, Zazi and Ahmedzay decided to call off the plan.
"He was OK with it, he said," Ahmedzay said.
Zazi's testimony was scheduled to continue on Wednesday.
The case is U.S. v. Medunjanin, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, no. 10-19.
(Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bill Trott)