After Adis Medunjanin arrived in Pakistan in 2008, authorities say, he took the code name Mohammad for what would become a failed mission by al-Qaida to attack the city's subway system with homemade bombs.
A year later, when federal agents showed up with a search warrant at Medunjanin's New York home, one apparently sought to rattle him by addressing him by the secret alias. The reference left him "visibly shaken," according to an FBI account recently made public in court papers.
What followed _ a wild car crash and a series of incriminating statements by Medunjanin _ has come under scrutiny at a pretrial hearing in federal court in Brooklyn, providing fresh insights into one of the most frightening terror plots against the city since the Sept. 11 attacks. Defense attorneys have asked a judge to stop a jury from hearing about the statements, saying they were coerced.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie on Monday began hearing testimony from investigators who tailed and detained Medunjanin on Jan. 7, 2010. FBI agent Adam Spivack testified that after he frisked Medunjanin and found a small Quran among his belongings, the terror suspect wanted to know whether the agent was Jewish.
"I answered that I was," Spivack said. "He began to talk religion. ... It was about Judaism being the wrong religion."
The hearing was to continue on Tuesday and Wednesday. An immediate ruling wasn't expected.
Medunjanin, 26, has pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of hatching a plot with two former high school classmates from Queens, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, to pull off what prosecutors call three "coordinated suicide bombing attacks" on Manhattan subway lines.
After receiving al-Qaida training, Zazi, a former Denver airport shuttle driver, cooked up explosives and set out for New York City around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was arrested after abandoning the plan and fleeing back to Colorado.
Zazi and Ahmedzay have since admitted in guilty pleas that they wanted to avenge U.S. aggression in the Arab world by becoming martyrs. If Medunjanin's case reaches trial, Zazi and Ahmedzay would be in line to testify against him.
In a sworn statement provided by the defense, Medunjanin accused agents of making veiled threats against his family and denying him access to his attorney for 36 hours.
"You know what you've done," Medunjanin quoted one officer as saying. "If you want your family to be happy, you have to come with us."
He claimed he feared that if he didn't talk authorities "would find excuses to bring charges against members of my family."
The government denies that Medunjanin was under duress. The FBI, in reports filed to support arguments that his statements should be allowed at trial, claims he waived his right to consult a lawyer before he willingly described his involvement.
According to the FBI, the Bosnian-born Medunjanin initially told agents in a voluntary interview shortly after Zazi's arrest in September 2009 that he had traveled to Pakistan for 26 days in 2008 with Zazi and Ahmedzay to get married but discovered "the dowry cost was too high."
Medunjanin, who worked as a security guard, said he had become a more devout Muslim about four years before the plot was exposed after he and Zazi began spending time together at a local mosque, the reports say. He also recalled being influenced by tapes of U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, they say.
But he denied knowing what Zazi was up to, or knowing about any pending attacks on the United States, saying, "We do not want this war," the reports say.
After months of being watched by agents, their arrival at his home with a search warrant convinced him they "had found out what he did in Pakistan," FBI reports about his post-arrest interviews say.
Medunjanin decided to flee and crash his car "in an act of jihad," or holy war, and called 911 as he sped down a highway to proclaim, "We love death more than you love life," the reports say. He smashed into another car but wasn't seriously injured, and agents took him into custody.
Over the next two days, the reports say, he admitted he had decided to go to Afghanistan with his friends, join the Taliban and fight U.S. soldiers in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. The three instead were recruited by al-Qaida operatives, who gave them weapons training in their Pakistan camp and asked them to become suicide bombers, the reports say.
Medunjanin told his al-Qaida handlers "he had prayed but still wasn't sure if he was ready to be a martyr," the reports say. He later was sent home on his own, the reports add, after he told them "the best thing for him to do ... was to return to the U.S. and provide financial support" for the terror network.
He told agents they "were like enemy combatants to him," the reports say.
But he added: "We don't have to like each other but could talk and go about our jobs in a civilized way."