By one account, the moment of truth for three former high school classmates from Queens came as they sat in a car outside a neighborhood mosque with their militant religious views festering.
"Allah doesn't like only talk about something and not doing it," former New York City cab driver Zarein Ahmedzay recalled telling his friends.
Then and there, Ahmedzay, Najibullah Zazi and Adis Medunjanin "made a covenant to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahedeen against American forces," Ahmedzay said Monday at the Brooklyn trial of Medunjanin.
The decision set in motion what authorities have called one of the most frightening near-miss terror plots since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack _ a 2009 scheme by the three Muslim men to strap on suicide-bomb vests and detonate them inside Manhattan subways.
The men "were prepared to kill themselves and everyone else around them _ men, women and children," Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam said in opening statements. "These men came so close _ within days of carrying out this attack."
Medunjanin, 27, a Bosnian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other charges.
In his opening, defense attorney Robert Gottlieb accused the government of using "inflammatory rhetoric" about al-Qaida and terrorism to prevent jurors "from seeing the truth about this case." The lawyer conceded his client had sought to support the Taliban's struggle against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but denied he ever agreed to kill American civilians for al-Qaida.
"The truth is that Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist," he said. "Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb the New York City subways."
Zazi and Ahmedzay have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify again Medunjanin in a bid for leniency.
Zazi could take the witness stand as early as Tuesday to testify about how, after relocating to the Denver area, he cooked up explosives and set out by car for New York City in September 2009 to carry out the attack. He was arrested after abandoning the plan and fleeing back to Colorado.
Ahmedzay was the government's first witness on Monday, offering a detailed account of how he went from being a New York city cab driver who was ambivalent about the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to a would-be suicide bomber bent on avenging it.
The witness, a 27-year-old of Afghan descent, told jurors that Medunjanin encouraged him to follow a more radical form of Islam preached by U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. He recalled listening to downloads of al-Awlaki's anti-American screeds on his iPod, admitting, "I became very radical in my views."
The men traveled in 2008 to Pakistan, where they met al-Qaida recruiters who told them they would be better suited for a suicide mission in the United States, the witness said. They were driven 10 hours away to a hideout protected by 20-foot mud walls. After morning prayers, English-speaking terrorists taught them how to use grenades, AK-47s and other weapons, he said.
Ahmedzay also recounted a meeting there when the three agreed to become martyrs. Terror operatives encouraged the men to complete the mission before the end of George W. Bush's second term as president, he said.
"I told them we have come here to give our lives," Ahmedzay testified, "and asked them, `Are we going to accept it?'"
He recalled returning to New York City and using his cab to drive around the city in early 2009 and casing potential targets for a terrorist attack, including Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the New York Stock Exchange. The conspirators also considered striking Penn Station or city movie theaters before settling on attacking the subways during Ramadan, he said.
Al-Qaida had told the men that pulling off a small-scale attack _ even using guns instead of bombs to slaughter innocent New Yorkers _ would be considered a success, Ahmedzay said.
He recalled one operative lamenting that other homegrown terrorists "have failed because they tried to do something big, and ended up doing nothing."