The 12-page indictment against Najibullah Zazi should make it clear that Americans, especially New Yorkers, have dodged yet another bullet -- or, in this harrowing case, a weapon of mass destruction.
Until the indictment was filed Thursday, news stories on Operation "High-Rise" (as the police call their frenetic investigation of Zazi) made little effort to contain their skepticism. If the innocent-looking 24- year-old Afghan immigrant was such a danger, experts opined, why were he, his father and a cleric who had tipped them off to federal surveillance only being charged with having lied to the FBI?
Now we know. The new court documents accuse Zazi and still unnamed others of having plotted for over a year to "use one or more weapons of mass destruction" in the US. According to the government, Zazi had recently bought bomb-making supplies from beauty-supply stores and sought "urgent" help in making the chemical explosives -- specifically, TATP, the type of bomb used in the 2005 London attacks and attempted in 2001 by Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber.
While Zazi must still be assumed innocent, the case is shaping up as what federal and local cops call "the real deal" -- the first al Qaeda-related plot in the United States since 9/11.
Yet the press was initially filled with instant dissections of the "botched" investigation -- a terror plot prematurely interrupted by the NYPD's ostensibly overzealous intelligence division; by tensions between the FBI (which has led this intensive investigation) and the NYPD (which did much of the surveillance) and by charges of "free-lancing" and miscommunication between federal and city officials.
It was rumored that the White House was so furious about mishandling of the case that Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel called NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly to complain. At least one detective was immediately transferred to another post.
Of course reporters should explore the mistakes that may have prompted law enforcement to move against suspects before the full dimensions of the plot were known. But the latest developments show that we shouldn't lose the big picture in the details: Thanks to the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (which includes 120 NYPD detectives) and other law-enforcement agencies, the citizens of New York and Denver remain safe. Al Qaeda can't claim another victory.
What are the preliminary lessons of Operation High Rise?
First: Al Qaeda, though wounded by the eight-year War on Terror, is still in business. Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants may be isolated and under pressure, but al Qaeda still means to kill as many of us Godless infidel Americans and our allies as it can.
Second: The NYPD was right when it warned that "homegrown" terrorism would increasingly be a problem.
The NYPD report on the growing dangers of homegrown Islamic extremism infuriated many Muslim-Americans and was criticized by federal law-enforcement when it first circulated -- but its troublesome conclusions have now been belatedly endorsed even by FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Najibullah Zazi may have been born in Afghanistan, but he came to the United States at age 14 and grew up in New York. Al Qaeda didn't have to send operatives into the United States for this alleged operation; they were already here. In this case, one was licensed to drive passengers to and from Denver airport.
Third: As Andrew McCarthy argued this week at National Review Online, this case underscores the shortcomings of approaching terrorism as a mere law-enforcement problem.
Arrest early to prevent an attack, and prosecutors may not be able to make charges stick -- certainly not against trained, hard-core terrorists. But waiting for law enforcement to build a solid case increases the chances for a successful, catastrophic attack.
McCarthy argues that an administrative-detention system is needed to counter terrorism threats. The United States is the only developed Western nation lacking a system for the government to detain suspects in a terrorism case while a criminal case can be built.
Here in New York, the goals of our two main terror-fighting forces remain at odds: Federal prosecutors still give priority to convictions, while the NYPD is far more focused on preventing attacks by deterring, disrupting and unraveling terrorist networks -- which is precisely what has probably happened in this case.
Yes, Zazi & Co. may argue that their 14 backpacks, almost as many cellphones and the digital scale that can be used to measure ingredients of chemical bombs were innocent. And he can always argue that the nine pages of handwritten notes he sent to two of his three e-mail accounts in Pakistan on how to make a bomb (not standard formulas downloaded off the Web) were bedtime reading. His eight associates who were trying to rent a 24-foot U-Haul trailer in New York can always claim that they just wanted to help a friend move furniture.
But, thanks to his arrest, Zazi won't be making anything sinister anytime soon. And the feds apparently moved before they had all the pieces of the alleged plot in presentable court order. Lying to federal officials may not be as grave as conspiring to commit terrorism, but it got Zazi off the streets and out of business.
The full dimensions of this plot are still unfolding. And law-enforcement officials are still conducting an intensive investigation for what they say are 16 to 18 "people of interest" allegedly tied to this plot.
But let us regard what has happened so far as a success. No bombs went off; nobody died. The investigations continue.
And we New Yorkers live to kvetch another day.