Today’s guilty plea by Najibullah Zazi to terrorism charges in federal court provides fresh ammunition for Obama administration officials to argue that traditional law-enforcement methods can be just as effective, if not more, in questioning terror suspects than subjecting them to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
By pleading guilty to plotting what he called a “martyrdom operation” and agreeing to cooperate about his Al Qaeda contacts in Pakistan, Zazi becomes the fourth major terror suspect to cut deals or at least begin plea negotiations with the FBI in recent months. Those suspects have already produced a bonanza of intelligence about the inner workings of Al Qaeda and its affiliates that is being actively used by security services around the world, according to current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials and numerous press reports.
Since last summer alone, the terror suspects who are publicly known to have cooperated with the FBI include Bryant Neal Vinas, a former Long Island, New York truck driver who has acknowledged providing Al Qaeda with information about New York area transit systems; David Coleman Headley, a Chicago resident who had contacts with a high level Al Qaeda linked figure in Pakistan and conducted scouting runs for the November, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspect who tried to blow up the Northwest airlines flight on Christmas Day. Officials say Abdulmutallab began cooperating about his contacts with Al Qaeda in Yemen after the FBI reached out to two members of his family in Nigeria—one of them his mother—and brought them to Detroit to persuade the suspect to begin cooperating.
“These are major flips. This is huge information that these guys are giving,” said Ali Soufan, a former top FBI counterterrorism agent who is now a security consultant based in the Middle East. “This shows that law enforcement can be strong tool at our disposal.
Just as importantly, notes Soufan, law-enforcement and intelligence officials around the world have been eager to talk to the FBI suspects─and use the information they are providing─precisely because it was gleaned without the use of rough interrogation tactics, like waterboarding or sleep deprivation, that would create political problems in most major Western countries that have officially condemned such tactics.
Vinas, for example, has provided evidence in a terrorism case in Belgium. Indian investigators have traveled to Chicago to learn what Headley has been saying as part of their continued investigation into the Mumbai attacks.
It remains to be seen how much intelligence Zazi will provide about his contacts with the Al Qaeda network in northwest Pakistan. But it is no surprise—given the political ramifications—that Attorney General Eric Holder called a press conference Friday to highlight the news.