A former airport shuttle driver accused of buying beauty supplies to make bombs for an attack on New York City subways pleaded guilty Monday, admitting he agreed to conduct an al Qaeda-led "martyrdom plan" because of U.S. involvement in his native Afghanistan.
Najibullah Zazi told a judge the terror network recruited him to be a suicide bomber in New York, where he went to high school and once worked a coffee car just blocks from the World Trade Center site.
The Afghan native pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support for a terrorist organization. He faces a life prison sentence without parole at a sentencing in June.
The plea apparently came as a direct result of government pressure to squeeze information out of Zazi, reports CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian -- pressure in the form of recent arrests or indictments of family and associates. Four in the last two months, including his uncle and father.
"I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the U.S. military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan," Zazi said in court.
The Associated Press learned earlier this month that the jailed Zazi had recently volunteered information about the bomb plot in the first step toward a plea deal. His cooperation suggests prosecutors hope to expand the case and bring charges against other suspects in one of the most serious terrorism threats in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the terror investigation is ongoing.
Among other things, Zazi admitted that he brought the explosive triacetone triperoxide or TATP to New York on Sept. 10, 2009, as part of plan to attack the subway system.
"It could have been devastating," Attorney General Eric Holder said at an evening press conference. "The combined efforts of the law enforcement and intelligence communities disrupted a major plot and there is no doubt that American lives were saved."
Touching on an issue that has recently become a political football, Holder praised the role of the criminal justices system in dealing with terrorists. He said that the system is equipped to prosecute and convict terrorists and presents incentives for them to provide intelligence to authorities as part of plea agreements.
"To denigrate the use of [the criminal justice system] flies in the face of the facts ," Holder said, "and is more about politics than about facts.
Zazi said he went to Pakistan in 2008 to join the Taliban and fight against the U.S. military but was recruited by the terrorist network and went into a training camp.
Zazi also said in court that he had been in contact with an al Qaeda leader while in Pakistan but did not identify the person.
"We were recruited by al Qaeda ... to go the United States in a martyrdom plan," he said.
The Pakistan Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Zazi's case.
Zazi admitted building homemade explosives with beauty supplies purchased in the Denver suburbs and cooked up in a Colorado hotel room. He then drove the materials to New York just before the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
While entering the city, he was stopped by police for a routine traffic violation on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York. Suspicious police allowed him to go free but kept a close watch on his movements.
Days later, authorities raided several Queens apartments, including a friend's home where Zazi had stayed.
Zazi told authorities he disposed of the explosives once arriving in New York.
In the wake of the plot, CBS News has learned that FBI investigators discovered craters in remote wilderness sites in Colorado, where Zazi allegedly honed his bomb-making skills.
And, Keteyian reports, scores of agents visited more than 3,000 storage and rental truck facilities in the New York area searching - unsuccessfully - for explosives.
He said the terrorism plot was aimed at the city subway system but wouldn't name a specific target when asked by U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie.
Zazi was arrested in the fall after arousing authorities' suspicions by driving cross-country from Denver to New York around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A law enforcement official familiar with the case told the AP that Zazi was spooked by the traffic stop and flushed the explosive materials down the toilet after arriving in New York.
One of the people familiar with the investigation said that Zazi told prosecutors that he made roughly two pounds of TATP.
The same explosive was used by would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2001 and the terrorists who carried out the London bombings in 2005 that killed 52 people.
In those instances, TATP was not the main charge; it was the detonator. The 1.5 grams in Reid's show was supposed to help detonate the plastic explosives aboard a jetliner, and it was used to set off a mixture of black pepper and hydrogen peroxide in London.
Experts have said the TATP in the Zazi case was most likely going to be just the detonator.
On Sept. 23, a federal grand jury returned a one-count indictment alleging that Zazi conspired to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States.
Zazi admitted Monday that he and others agreed to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and fight against United States and allied forces, according to a Justice Department press release. They from Newark, N.J., to Peshawar, Pakistan at the end of August 2008. Although Zazi and others initially intended to fight on behalf of the Taliban, they were recruited by al Qaeda shortly after arriving in Peshawar.
Beginning in June 2009, Zazi began reviewing the bomb-making notes from his training and conducting research on where to buy the ingredients for the explosives, the Department alleges, and traveled to New York and met with others to discuss the plan, including the timing of the attack and where to make the explosives.
Zazi returned to Denver and used the bomb-making notes to construct the explosives for the detonator components of the bombs. In July and August 2009, Zazi purchased large quantities of components necessary to produce TATP and twice checked into a hotel room near Denver, where bomb making residue was later found.
Video report by CBS News investigative producer Pat Miltion:
One of the people familiar with the Zazi case told the AP that Zazi decided to offer the information after being warned that his mother could face criminal immigration charges. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is in progress.
After Monday's hearing, Zazi's attorney, William Stampur, would only say: "The plea speaks for itself."
The 10-page plea agreement is sealed.
Others charged in the terror case include Zazi's father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, and other evidence.
After initially demanding that he be jailed in Brooklyn without bail, prosecutors agreed to a deal on Feb. 17 releasing him on $50,000 bond and allowing him to return to his home in suburban Denver.
By contrast, bond for a Queens imam charged with lying to the FBI about phone contact with Zazi when Zazi was in New York was set at $1.5 million. A friend of Zazi's, New York cab driver Zarein Ahmedzay, was jailed without bail on a similar lying charge.
Authorities say Ahmedzay and another former high school classmate of Zazi's, Adis Medunjanin, traveled to Pakistan with Zazi in 2008. Medunjanin has pleaded not guilty to charges he conspired to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and remains jailed.
Officials earlier confirmed reports week that Zazi's uncle had been arraigned on a felony count in secret - a sign that he also could be cooperating.