By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The lone suspect to face trial in what prosecutors call an al Qaeda-inspired plot to attack the New York City subway system fully intended to put his jihadist training to work by suicide bomb, an assistant attorney told a jury on Monday.
But Adis Medunjanin, 28, a U.S. citizen born in Bosnia, had backed out of the plot to which two other men have pleaded guilty, his defense lawyer countered in opening arguments in a case Attorney General Eric Holder called one of the most serious threats to security since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Medunjanin is on trial in Brooklyn federal court for what prosecutors described as a conspiracy between him and two close friends from high school in the New York City borough of Queens to carry out attacks in 2009 at the behest of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, seeking to exact revenge for United States' treatment of Muslims.
"These three men agreed to return to the U.S. to conduct suicide bombings against the U.S. for al Qaeda," Assistant Attorney James Loonam said. "Al Qaeda wanted to show it could still hit the U.S. on American soil."
Though jihad also has a peaceful meaning in Islam, authorities use the term as shorthand for violent Islamist extremism.
The two other defendants - Najibullah Zazi, 27, a permanent resident from Afghanistan, and Zarein Ahmedzay, also 27, a citizen born in Afghanistan - have pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors in which they agreed to testify about their trip to Pakistan to seek anti-U.S. training and detail Medunjanin's involvement in the subway plot.
An attorney for Medunjanin, Robert Gottlieb, said his client was a "serious, studious and sincere" young man who balked at joining his friends in the "martyrdom operations."
"Adis Medunjanin made his decision, and he decided not to be a terrorist, not to be a suicide bomber," Gottlieb said.
Medunjanin is the only defendant to stand trial. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to commit murder abroad, conspiring to provide material support and receiving training from al Qaeda, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, and attempting to commit an act of terrorism.
'WE LOVE DEATH'
Prosecutors said Medunjanin and his accused co-conspirators, who met in high school, traveled to Pakistan in 2008 in a bid to join the Taliban's fight against U.S. troops. They met with al Qaeda operatives who persuaded them to return to the United States to carry out suicide attacks.
Medunjanin's lawyers say he never intended to go through with the plan. Instead, Gottlieb said Monday, Medunjanin returned home early and was eventually excluded by Zazi and Ahmedzay from their plans.
In September 2009, Zazi was arrested days after driving into New York City with a detonator and materials to build an explosive device. Zazi's plan, prosecutors said, was to carry out suicide attacks on the New York City subway system in early September, timed to occur around the eighth anniversary of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
Medunjanin was arrested in early 2010 after attempting to crash his car into another vehicle in what prosecutors have described as a failed suicide attempt. Prosecutors have presented recordings of 911 emergency calls in which they say Medunjanin identified himself, made jihadist statements, and declared "We love death" immediately before the crash. At the time he was under surveillance by federal agents.
Gottlieb said the statements were an expression of desperation from a man whose home had just been raided by federal agents and who was overwhelmed with the possibility of being branded a Muslim terrorist.
If convicted, Medunjanin faces up to life in prison. Zazi and Ahmedzay have yet to be sentenced.
The trial before District Judge John Gleeson was expected to last approximately three weeks.
The case is U.S. v. Medunjanin, in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York, no. 10-19.
(Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Beech)