BROOKLYN, NY—A former New York City cab driver who pleaded "guilty" in a terror plot to bomb subways took the stand Monday against his friend from Flushing High School as a federal trial starts in the conspiracy case involving 28-year-old Adis Medunjanin.
Medunjanin is the only one of three Queens friends charged in the case to insist on his innocence. The other two, Zarein Ahmedzay and Najibullah Zazi, have already pleaded guilty and are doing federal prison time.
"I became very radical in my views, and I felt the only acceptable government should be an Islamic government," he said in court.
Regarding their trip to Pakistan, while training at an Al Qaeda terror camp in Waziristan, Ahmedzay testified, "We made a covenant--the three of us."
After the prosecutor's opening arguments at the beginning of the court day, Medunjanin's defense lawyer Robert Gottlieb made an impassioned statement to the jury.
"The truth is Adis Medunjanin is not a terrorist," he said. "Mr. Medunjanin never planned to bomb New York City subways."
Gottlieb described the defendant as a Queens College graduate with a degree in Economics who fled Bosnia when he was 8 years old--during the years of "ethnic cleansing" by Slobodan Milosevic. Gottlieb said when Al Qaeda terrorists knocked down the Twin Towers with planes on 9/11, "Adis was appalled at what he witnessed. He did not defend those attacks."
And while Gottlieb acknowledged his client flew to Pakistan with the two, other suspects in 2008, he said Medunjanin balked at being used as a suicide bomber. "There was real conflict between Adis .and the two bombers. Adis was no longer part of their warped, terrorist plot."
The prosecution sees things very differently, and it introduced exhibit photos showing high-tech assault rifles and rocket launchers the three men learned to use at the training camps.
Ahmedzay testified Monday that there were discussions about "targets" to hit in New York: Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, the New York Stock Exchange, and the subways. There was even talk about hitting a crowded movie theater. He said the three men watched violent videos in Pakistan, including a "martyrdom" video made by one of the suicide bombers who killed people in the London underground and on buses in July 2005.
Ahmedzay also said the Al Qaeda trainers told them they should "scale down" their ambitious plans if they couldn't learn to make explosives properly.
"If you can't make a big bomb," Ahmedzay recalled one saying, "make something smaller. In other missions that failed, they didn't end up doing anything!"
Ahmedzay testified that Medunjanin left Pakistan before his two friends because his visa was about to expire, causing him to be sent home to New York.
"The plan for him was to keep a low profile," Ahmedzay said. "He'd be one of the suicide bombers."
"Did he agree to this?" the prosecutor asked. "Yes", replied Ahmedzay.
Ahmedzay also testified that his own, young wife. who was living in Afghanistan with their child, was extremely upset about his plans to take part in an Al Qaeda plot. "She said she would kill herself and the child if I planned the suicide bombing," Ahmedsay recalled.
Prosecutors pointed out to the jury that when Medunjanin was about to be arrested by FBI agents who had come to seize his passport, he fled from his apartment building in Flushing and raced in his car onto the Whitestone Expressway. He called a 911 operator during the ride, yelling into the phone, "This is Adis. We love death more than you love life!" He repeatedly screamed, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger."
Medunjanin rear-ended another car, and police and FBI agents made the arrest on the expressway in January 2010. Prosecutors told the jury that Medunjanin even asked if he could be traded to the Taliban in exchange for a captured, U.S. soldier. His defense lawyer claimed the 911 call was spurred by panic and that he was simply chanting a slogan.
Medunjanin appeared in court with a long, dark beard that is common among religious Muslim men. He was wearing a business suit.
The star witness also had a long beard, but he was wearing a prison uniform.
The defense said Zarein Ahmedzay hopes to get a reduced prison sentence for his cooperation. Zazi could be taking the stand by late Tuesday.