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The scientist, who has so far not been identified under French judicial rules, appeared at a court in Paris to face charges of "criminal association with a terrorist enterprise", officials said.
The physicist had exchanged messages over the internet with people known to be close to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and expressed a desire to carry out attacks, but had "not got to the stage of carrying out material acts of preparation", one said.
Law enforcement officials told ABCNews.com that electronic intercepts revealed Zazi had sent text messages suggesting, in code, the plot was nearing the attack stage. "The wedding cake is ready," Zazi allegedly wrote.