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Man puzzled to be at center of NYC terror probe

A surveillance video image shows a terror sweep

A surveillance video image shows a terror sweep in an apartment complex at 29-49 137th St., Flushing, on Monday, September 14, 2009. Police and FBI were looking for possible terrorist suspects. Credit: Handout

The man authorities are investigating in connection with an alleged terrorist plot in New York City and his attorney are puzzled by allegations that he's a central figure in the probe.

Najibullah Zazi told The Associated Press at his home outside Denver yesterday that he recently visited New York City and was driving a rental car when he was stopped by authorities Sept. 10 on the George Washington Bridge. But he said after officers searched the vehicle, he was allowed to leave and return to suburban Denver.

"All I can say is that I have no idea what it is all about," Zazi said.

Arthur Folsom, Zazi's attorney in Denver, said his client is bewildered at how he has been sucked into the media attention surrounding the case. "He doesn't understand why he is the center of this attention," Folsom said.

Zazi now has reporters camped outside his home in the Denver area, where he has lived for several years, Folsom said. "From what I can tell, this is guilt by association," said Folsom, who said Zazi appears to have been targeted because of visits he made in New York.

The food vendor from Afghanistan appears to be a person of interest in a terrorism investigation that led to raids Monday in Flushing but hasn't yet led to arrests.

A law enforcement official told The Associated Press Tuesday that the FBI had put Zazi under surveillance in connection with a suspected plot to make homemade bombs. The official insisted on anonymity.

On Sunday, Zazi's car was towed for what was said to be a parking violation and the vehicle was again searched, he said. While Zazi is said to be of interest to the FBI, Folsom said no one from the agency has tried to talk with him or his client.

New York officials say the FBI and NYPD raided three homes in Flushing Monday to search for explosives and possible links to al-Qaida after tailing Zazi, the AP said. It's not clear whether Zazi has any ties to the homes.

Counterterrorism officials warned police departments around the country Tuesday to be on the lookout for evidence of homemade bombs.

Friends and fellow congregants of Zazi told Newsday Tuesday that the peddler had told members of the Masjid Hazrat Abudakr mosque last week that he was planning to sell his Manhattan food cart business and go to Denver.

He said "he just came here to visit some friends," says Abdulrahman Jalili, 58, the mosque's president. The Northport resident said the FBI called him Tuesday to question him about Zazi. "I was shocked because I never suspected him" of criminal activity, Jalili said. "He told me last year he was married, that his wife's in Afghanistan." said Mohammed Aziz, 51, as he sat in a van outside the mosque on 33rd Avenue in Flushing. "I asked him if he moved to Afghanistan, but he said he moved to Colorado."

While some news reports said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and federal officials were feuding over the timing of the raid - with the FBI alleging that NYPD acted too hastily - local, federal and city officials said those reports were false.

"Everybody has been working together smoothly," said one federal official who asked not to be named.

Kelly, at an impromptu news conference in the Rockaways, said, "There was enough substance to the intel gathered that a warrant was issued and evidence seized as result of the raid.

"As far as the outcome of the raid, there is nothing I can speak on specifically, but the evidence is being analyzed and we are awaiting the results."

Kelly also said there was no specific threat to the city.

Because of the classified nature of the case, other law enforcement sources were tightlipped about the case beyond confirming the investigation.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who confirmed the substance of the investigation Monday, said Tuesday that the police and FBI would take further action if necessary.

With Carl MacGowan and Daniel Edward Rosen

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