An alleged co-conspirator testified Monday that Queens College graduate Adis Medunjanin discussed making a martyrdom video on the eve of a planned suicide-bomb attack on New York City's subways as the trial over the 2009 al-Qaida plot began.
"He said he would say he was doing the operation of his own free choice, and that he loved death more than he loved life," said Zarein Ahmedzay, a one-time Queens classmate of Medunjanin, who has pleaded guilty to participating in the plot.
Medunjanin, 28, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bosnia who worked as a doorman before his arrest, faces up to life in prison if convicted in Brooklyn federal court on terrorism charges in a plot that authorities say was one of the closest near-misses in the United States since Sept. 11.
The plot was thwarted by the FBI, and Medunjanin's two alleged accomplices -- Ahmedzay, a one-time cabdriver, and Najibullah Zazi, the bomb-maker and mastermind -- both pleaded guilty in 2010. The trial marks the first time the two will testify publicly.
Among other witnesses, prosecutors are also expected to call Bryant Vinas of Patchogue, a Long Island man who converted to Islam and has pleaded guilty to receiving al-Qaida training in Pakistan. Vinas is expected to describe the group's techniques for recruiting and preparing Americans to participate in homegrown terrorism.
In opening statements Monday, prosecutor James Loonam told jurors that Zazi and Ahmedzay would testify that they traveled with Medunjanin in 2008 to Pakistan to meet with al-Qaida, which told the three they needed to show the United States it was still vulnerable at home.
"In September 2009, these three men were prepared to strap bombs to their bodies and step onto subway cars filled with innocent people," Loonam said. "These three men were prepared to explode these bombs and kill themselves and everyone around them."
Loonam said Medunjanin is also charged with committing a terrorist act when he was about to be arrested in January 2010, crashing into another car on the Whitestone Expressway as agents followed. In a 911 call, he screamed in Arabic, "We love death more than you love your life," the prosecutor said.
Defense lawyer Robert Gottlieb told jurors that the prosecution was using "inflammatory rhetoric" to scare them into convicting Medunjanin, but said his client went to Pakistan with the sole goal of trying to protect Muslims.
Medunjanin never agreed to go along with his friends in the subway plot pitched by an al-Qaida recruiter, he said, and in fact left Pakistan before the group received explosives training from al-Qaida.
"The three of them had to make individual choices," Gottlieb said. " . . . Adis made his decision not to be a terrorist, not to become a suicide bomber. He decided to go home."