Testifying publicly for the first time, New York City subway bomb plotter Najibullah Zazi told a Brooklyn federal court jury Tuesday that he and two Queens friends went to Pakistan to join the Taliban and didn't take it seriously the first time an attack in the U.S. was suggested to them.
"We took it as a joke," said Zazi, sporting a military buzz-cut and shorn of the bushy black religious beard he had when he pleaded guilty to the subway suicide bombing plot two years ago.
But their journey ended, he said, at a training compound in the frontier Waziristan province, where a man named Hamad -- who officials have identified as al-Qaida leader Adnan Shukrajumah -- tried to persuade the reluctant trio to return home.
Zazi, a former food cart vendor and airport bus driver who was the bombmaker in the 2009 plan, took the stand as a government witness against former schoolmate and alleged accomplice Adis Medunjanin, 28, a former doorman. Authorities say the al-Qaida plot came within days of succeeding.
The third alleged plotter, cabdriver Zarein Ahmedzay, also pleaded guilty and testified Monday against Medunjanin.
Defense lawyers for Medunjanin, facing life in prison, have argued that while he accompanied his two friends to Pakistan and the training camp, he never agreed to join the bomb plot.
Zazi testified that the three former Flushing High School classmates, all Muslims, shared a growing religious commitment and concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the years after Sept. 11, 2001. But they were hardly a well-oiled machine.
Zazi financed the adventure with his credit cards, hoping he would never have to pay off the $50,000 debt because he wouldn't ever return. The trio, he said, had no Taliban contacts, but bought laptops and other electronics to donate to show good faith.
After they arrived in Pakistan, Zazi said, he stayed with his family in Peshawar, and got a taxi for Ahmedzay and Medunjanin to try to cross into Afghanistan and find Taliban forces. But they were turned back at the first checkpoint because police suspected Medunjanin, who only spoke English, was an American spy.
And they ended up finding the world's most notorious terror group by happenstance, he testified: A cousin put him in touch with an imam who put him in touch with a man named Ahmed, who said he could take them to "Arab brothers."
But even as they journeyed into Waziristan with heavily armed operatives, they were embroiled in personal conflicts. He and Medunjanin exchanged blows, Zazi testified, because he criticized his friend for not eating food in keeping with local tribal customs, for "drinking tea from a Coke bottle," and other failings.
"I kind of hurt his feelings," Zazi said.