NEW YORK, N.Y. (WPIX)—Police acting without FBI knowledge may have accidentally blown a terror probe investigation by questioning a terror suspect too soon, leaving officials unable to charge him with terrorism.
"They came to ask me about your characters," the Muslim religious leader, Ahmad Wais Afzali, told Najibullah Zazi in a secretly recorded Sept. 11th telephone conversation. "They asked me about you guys."
NYPD detective working independently of the FBI terrorism task force may have tipped off Zazi, a 24-year-old Denver airport shuttle driver who has since been arrested for making false statements to federal agents.
Police towed and searched a rental car he drove from Denver to Manhattan after suspicions arose over an alleged bomb plot. The search returned a laptop containing images of handwritten instructions on how to assemble and detonate explosive devices.
But, the move may have also forced the suspect to proceed with even more caution and cancel an upcoming trip to New York City . In the phone conversation with Afzali, Zazi said the car's disappearance convinced him he was being watched.
NYPD and FBI officials deny that the potential missteps forced them into having to make a series of high-profile raids last week, before they had the chance to gather more information. The two agencies work together through the joint terrorism task force.
Both agencies deny the claim. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne in a statement said: "The FBI and the NYPD work together on joint investigations and side by side in task forces on a daily basis.... This collaboration is an essential part of what helps to protect New York City from another terrorist attack."
Zazi, his father and Afzali, an associate, were arrested over the weekend on charges they lied to the FBI, but were not charged with terrorism. The men deny the charges
Officials say the timing, location and intended targets surrounding the plot still remain unclear. Law enforcement officials suggest Zazi may have been plotting with others to detonate backpack bombs on New York trains in an attack similar to the 2005 London Subway attacks. Backpacks and cell phones were seized in raids on apartments Zazi visited in New York.
In a statement, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security said that while the agencies "have no information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack, we believe it is prudent to raise the security awareness of our local law enforcement partners regarding the targets and tactics of previous terrorist activity."
As many as 24 people may be under observation in a suspected cross-country terror plot, according to published sources. Authorities are stepping up safety patrols on mass transit systems in response to an advisory issued in connection with the probe. Officials have identified hydrogen-peroxide bombs as a specific risk.
Afzali's attorney, Ron Kuby, said he client is a Queens religious and community leader, who has a history of giving police information. He says Afzali was working in authorities' interests by talking to Zazi and finding out what he was up to.
"My client is being blamed for an investigation botched by the authorities," Kuby said Tuesday. "It's much easier to blame some obscure Afghan imam." Afzali is expected in Brooklyn Federal Court tomorrow.