2012 in Review: CJ Grad Helped Thwart Terrorist Attack

Eric Jergenson (right) at the arrest of Najibulla Zazi. (Photo by Chris Schneider)

Last October, the confessed mastermind of the biggest terrorist plot in the United States since 9/11 stepped off the witness stand. Najibulla Zazi, an admitted al-Qaida recruit, was in federal court in Brooklyn testifying in the trial of co-conspirator Adis Medunjanin. The ongoing trial is being followed fervently by news agencies nationwide, and a UWM graduate has been credited with helping to prevent the terrorist plot from unfolding.

UWM criminal justice graduate and FBI Special Agent Eric Jergenson (MS CJ ’95) played a prominent role in Zazi’s arrest and subsequent interrogations, in which Zazi revealed valuable information to the intelligence community. For his work preserving the safety of the nation and its citizens, Jergenson received a 2010 Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jergenson credits the professors and staff in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare’s Criminal Justice Department for his extraordinary achievements in international counter-terrorism.

“What they passed along to me was invaluable in terms of future success,” says Jergenson, who works in international counter-terrorism in the FBI’s Denver office. “I wouldn’t be here today had it not been for [Dean] Stan Stojkovic, Rick Lovell and the criminal justice program. With a career in the FBI or any local, state or federal law-enforcement position, you can truly make a difference.”

The case is the first known instance of core al-Qaida operators plotting within the United States since 9/11. It is often cited in the current debate over domestic intelligence gathering.

Zazi, 26, admitted that he came to New York in 2009 near the eighth anniversary of Sept. 11 to kill himself and others on the subway during rush hour using a homemade bomb. Other potential targets he cited in court were Walmart and Times Square. He characterized the plot as a martyrdom operation, its purpose being “to make America weak.”

Once in New York, Zazi realized he was being investigated by law authorities and returned to Denver, where he lived and worked as an airport shuttle driver. The FBI arrested Zazi in Denver on Sept. 19, 2009.

Back at the FBI’s Denver headquarters, Jergenson, an Oshkosh native, came to know Zazi better than anyone else in the bureau. He interviewed the Afghanistan native for 20 hours, extracting information that the FBI deemed highly valuable.

Zazi became a central figure in an ongoing investigation and intelligence operation that has led to several related arrests. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to terrorism charges, agreed to become a government witness and faces a sentence of life in prison without parole.

“Everyone should know that al-Qaida operatives are here in the U.S. and they blend in,” Jergenson says. “Without the very, very hard work by many people, the attack would have occurred and it would have been devastating.” In addition to deaths and injuries, the attack would have delivered a severe blow to the U.S. economy, an outcome which al-Qaida has historically sought, he adds.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.