Chilling plot: suspect hit beauty stores for bomb supplies

An Afghan immigrant who received explosives training from al-Qaeda went from one beauty supply store to another, buying large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and nail-polish remover, in a chilling plot to build bombs for attacks on US soil, authorities said.

Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old shuttle driver at the Denver airport, was indicted in New York on charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

Investigators found bomb-making instructions on his computer's hard drive and said Zazi used a hotel room in Colorado to try to cook up explosives a few weeks ago before a trip to New York.

Over the past few days, talk of the possible plot set off the most intense flurry of national terrorism warnings in the US since shortly after the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Prosecutors said they had yet to establish exactly when and where the Zazi attacks were supposed to take place. But Attorney-General Eric Holder said in Washington: "We believe any imminent threat arising from this case has been disrupted."

A law enforcement official said that Zazi had associates in New York who were in on the plot.

Zazi was arrested in Denver. He, his father and a New York City imam were charged with lying to investigators.

Authorities said in the past few days that they feared Zazi and others might have been planning to detonate home-made bombs on New York trains, and warnings went out to transit systems, stadiums and hotels nationwide.

Explosives built with hydrogen peroxide killed 52 people in the London transit system four years ago. They are easy to conceal and detonate and last week's warnings asked authorities to be on the lookout for them.

A law-enforcement official said on Thursday that authorities had been so worried about Zazi - and that his September 10 trip to New York City coincided with a visit by US President Barack Obama - that they considered arresting him as soon as he reached the city.

Zazi left a Denver court on Thursday without commenting and will be transferred soon to New York. He and his lawyer have denied he is a terrorist.

In two unrelated terrorism cases elsewhere around the US on Thursday:

- Michael Finton, a 29-year-old man who idolised American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh, was arrested after attempting to detonate what he thought was a bomb inside a van outside a federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois, officials said. FBI agents had infiltrated the alleged plot months ago.

- Two North Carolina men under arrest since July on international terrorism charges were also accused by prosecutors of plotting to kill US military personnel.

In the Zazi case, a government motion seeking to deny bail laid out a chronology of the alleged scheme, which prosecutors said had been in the works for as much as a year. The court papers filed in Brooklyn federal court also refer to "others" who bought bomb materials with Zazi.

According to prosecutors' account, Zazi - a legal US resident who immigrated in 1999 - began plotting as early as August 2008 to "use one or more weapons of mass destruction". That was when he and others travelled from Newark, New Jersey, to Pakistan, where he received the explosives training, prosecutors said.

Within days of returning from Pakistan in early 2009, he moved to the Denver suburb of Aurora, where he used a computer to research home-made bomb ingredients and to look up beauty supply stores where he could buy them, prosecutors said.

During the summer, Zazi and three unidentified associates bought "unusually large quantities" of hydrogen peroxide and acetone - a flammable solvent found in nail-polish remover - from beauty supply stores in the Denver area, prosecutors said.

A law-enforcement official said associates of Zazi visited Colorado from New York to help him buy the chemicals. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation continues, said they used stolen credit cards to make the purchases and then returned to New York.

Security video and receipts show that some of the purchases were made near a Colorado hotel, according to court papers. On September 6 and 7, Zazi checked into a suite at the hotel with a kitchen and a stove, the papers say.

He tried to contact an unidentified associate "seeking to correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives".

"Each communication," the papers say, was "more urgent than the last ... Zazi reportedly emphasised in the communication that he needed the answers right away".

FBI explosives testing later found residue in the vent above the stove, authorities said.

On September 8, court papers say, Zazi searched the internet for home improvement stores in Queens before driving a rental car for a two-day trip to the city. The visit triggered a series of searches in Denver and New York City over the past two weeks.

Authorities seized backpacks, mobile phones and a scale in recent raids on a Queens neighbourhood that Zazi visited. And beauty supply store employees in New York and the Denver suburbs said authorities had been there recently asking whether anyone had come in buying a lot of hydrogen peroxide or acetone.

Zazi's father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, and the imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, also appeared in court on Thursday.

Mohammed Zazi, 53, was ordered to be freed under court supervision in Denver until an October 9 hearing. Afzali, who was accused of tipping off the Zazis to the federal probe against them in a tapped telephone call, was released in New York on bail of $US1.5 million ($1.7 million).

Afzali's attorney, Ron Kuby, denied his client knew anything about a plot.

"Obviously, the Government would not be consenting to bail if it thought he was involved in a terrorism conspiracy," he said.


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