Queens imam leaves country following plea in terror case

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Flushing imam Ahmad Wais Afzali left the country where he grew up and raised a family Monday as part of a plea deal for tipping off another Queens man who planned to carry out suicide bombings in the city’s subway system by telling him he was under federal investigation, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Afzali, 38, and his wife took a 2 p.m. flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As Afzali bid farewell to the United States, where he had lived since he was 8, among his last words on U.S. soil were “God bless America,” according to Lea Spiess, one of his attorneys..

“He’ll always call this his home, no other country,” said Spiess. “He expresses zero bitterness. It’s incredible that someone who’s gone through all of this still believes so strongly in the principles of this country and appreciates the freedoms and rights guaranteed for its citizens and people able to live here. He still has a sense of love and pride for this country.”

A Fresh Meadows resident originally from Afghanistan, Afzali was ordered to leave the United States and never return to this country when he was sentenced in Brooklyn federal court in April. He leaves behind a 13-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter in Virginia, who are living with his ex-wife.

Afzali’s wife, Fatima, is expected to take a position teaching in Saudi Arabia, according to Spiess. The imam may open a restaurant in his new home country.

“He’s part of a family of entrepreneurs who have long been involved in the restaurant business,” Spiess said.

Afzali was charged after his arrest in September 2009 with lying during a terror investigation to authorities, whom he told repeatedly that he had not informed fellow Flushing resident Najibullah Zazi, the admitted ringleader of a plot to carry out a series of coordinated suicide bombings on city subways, that he was being investigated by federal officials.

Zazi, 25, admitted he planned with others to carry out the bombings in the subway system around the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Afzali said in court in April. “Honest to God, it was never my intention to help those idiots for what they do in the name of Islam.”

The imam had worked for the past several years as a liaison between the city Police Department and the Queens Muslim and Afghan communities.

Since Afzali’s arrest, he has denounced the efforts of Zazi and his accused fellow co-conspirators in the plot, former Flushing High School classmates Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay.

Afzali said he has known Zazi and Medunjanin since they were teenagers who frequented his mosque to play volleyball and pray. On Sept. 10, 2009, police asked Afzali to provide information about the two men and he agreed to do so, according to his allocution.

On Sept. 11, he called Zazi and told him law enforcement had been in contact with him about the young man and that their telephone conversation was being monitored, Afzali said in court. On Sept. 13, he was interrogated by FBI agents, whom he believed were angry at him for calling Zazi, and he lied and said he had not done so. He repeated the lie Sept. 18 at the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, he admitted.

Zazi has been cooperating with authorities since he pleaded guilty in February to planning to blow up city subways. After admitting in federal court in April that he traveled to Pakistan in 2008 with Zazi to train with Al Qaeda leaders, Ahmedzay faces up to life in prison for charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, conspiracy to murder U.S. military personnel overseas and supplying terrorists with resources, according to federal officials. Medunjanin has pleaded not guilty.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 6:14 pm, October 10, 2011
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