NEW YORK – A New York City man, after reciting verses from the Quran rather than expressing remorse, was sentenced Friday to life in prison in a foiled 2009 plot that authorities labeled one of the closest calls since the 9/11 attacks.
Adis Medunjanin, a 28-year-old U.S. citizen from Bosnia, had faced a mandatory life term following his conviction last year of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and several other terrorism charges stemming from the al-Qaida-sanctioned scheme hatched with two former high school classmates.
Appearing in federal court in Brooklyn, Medunjanin read from the Quran in Arabic for several minutes before U.S. District Judge John Gleeson interrupted and asked him if he intended to say anything in English.
The defendant politely asked for more time to finish one verse, then shifted into a critique of American society and foreign policy.
"What kind of system endorses torture?" he said, as some of his relatives wept in the gallery. "Is this really the best system that humanity ever produced?"
He closed by saying, "I had nothing to do with any subway plot or bombing plot whatsoever. I ask Allah to release me from prison."
Gleeson told Medunjanin that his remarks made him appear more like a robotic "exhibit" of extremism than the college-educated person who escaped war-torn Bosnia as a child and grew up in a stable immigrant family in a working-class section of Queens.
"You create the impression that you're asking me to sentence you like the committed, anti-American jihadist you seem to want to be for the rest of your life," the judge said.
Medunjanin showed no emotion as the sentence was announced. His parents and sister declined to speak to reporters as they left the courthouse.
"Adis Medunjanin sought martyrdom for himself and death for innocent New Yorkers as part of al-Qaeda's plan to spread terror within our shores," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "Scores of innocent New Yorkers would have been killed or maimed had Medunjanin succeeded in his plot."
At a trial earlier this year, the former classmates, Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay, testified that the three men sought terror training after falling under the influence of inflammatory recordings of U.S.-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki that they downloaded and listened to on their iPods.
Zazi and Ahmedzay, who testified as part of a plea deal, told jurors that the scheme unfolded after the trio traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to avenge the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan by joining the Taliban.
While receiving terror training at outposts in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, al-Qaida operatives encouraged the American recruits to return home for a suicide-bombing mission intended to spread panic and cripple the economy. Among the targets considered were the New York Stock Exchange, Times Square and Grand Central Terminal, the men testified.
In a later meeting in New York, the plotters decided to strap on bombs and blow themselves up at rush hour on Manhattan subway lines because the transit system is "the heart of everything in New York City," Zazi said.
Zazi told jurors how he learned to extract explosives ingredients from nail polish remover, hydrogen peroxide and other products sold at beauty supply stores. When leaving Pakistan, he relocated to Colorado, where he perfected a homemade detonator in a hotel room and set out for New York City by car around the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The plot – financed in part by $50,000 in credit card charges – was abandoned after Zazi noticed that everywhere he drove in New York, a car followed.
"I think law enforcement is on us," he recalled telling Ahmedzay. Later, he said, he told Medunjanin in a text message, "We are done."