The ringleader of a thwarted plot to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009 was effectively sentenced to time served on Thursday, in what the judge hearing the case called "one unthinkable second chance."
Najibullah Zazi was sentenced to 10 years behind bars in his long-delayed sentencing, but he's been detained in federal custody since he pleaded guilty to terror charges in 2010.
It's not immediately clear when the 33-year-old will be released from custody. His lawyer says he hopes his client will be released in a matter of days, but admitted it could take a bit longer.
“This one unthinkable second chance has come your way and you earned it," Judge Raymond Dearie said in open court on Thursday.
Al-Qaida recruited Zazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and two others to carry out a "martyrdom operation" on U.S. soil in 2008. The mission called for rush-hour suicide bombings on subway lines, timed to occur during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The plot, foiled by federal authorities, represented "one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation" since 9/11, then-Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for Zazi to spend the rest of his life behind bars after his 2010 guilty plea.
But prosecutors have credited Zazi for his "extraordinary" assistance to authorities over the past nine years, including implicating his two best friends in the subway plot and providing "critical intelligence and unique insight regarding al-Qaeda and its members."
"I have no doubt you saved a life," U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Dearie told Zazi during the sentencing hearing.
Zazi apologized and asked for forgiveness.
"I'm sorry for all the harm I have caused," he said. "I tried my best to correct a horrible mistake. I am not the same person."
Zazi's cooperation included meeting with the government "more than 100 times, viewing hundreds of photographs and providing information that assisted law enforcement officials in a number of different investigations."
He testified at the 2015 trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani national convicted of leading an al-Qaeda plot to bomb a shopping mall in Manchester, England, and against one of his co-conspirators in the thwarted subway plot, Adis Medunjanin, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
"Zazi's assistance came in the face of substantial potential danger to himself and his family," Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas M. Pravda wrote in the court filing. "By aligning himself with the government against al-Qaeda, Zazi assumed such a risk."
The third man charged in the subway plot, Zarein Ahmedzay, offered similar assistance to federal authorities and was sentenced in December to 10 years —essentially time served.