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NEW YORK — The Afghan immigrant at the center of what the authorities described as one of the most serious threats to the United States since 9/11 pleaded guilty Monday to terrorism charges in what he said was a Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb in the New York subway.

The man, Najibullah Zazi, admitted that he came to New York last year near the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to kill himself and others on the subway using a homemade bomb. He characterized the plot as a “martyrdom operation” that he was just days away from executing when he said he realized he was under government surveillance.

Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn to charges that included conspiracies to use weapons of mass destruction and to commit murder in a foreign country, and to provide material support for a terrorist organization. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison.

Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference in Washington that the Zazi cases represented one of the most serious threats to the United States since the 9/11 attacks. “Were it not for the combined efforts of the law enforcement and intelligence communities it could have been devastating,” he said.

“This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion, and it would have been deadly.”

Holder, who has faced criticism by some who favor prosecuting more terror suspects before military tribunals, also repeated his defense of the civilian court system as “an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists.” He said it “contains powerful incentives to induce pleas that yield long sentences and gain intelligence.”

Throughout the 45-minute proceeding on Monday, Zazi seemed unaffected by his circumstances, even smiling through his dark beard on several occasions. And when he spoke, he did so in an unapologetic, matter-of-fact manner, explaining that he was driven to terrorism by his concerns about the U.S. military’s actions in Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, Zazi — who was born in Afghanistan, raised in Pakistan and later attended high school in Queens — had begun providing information to prosecutors as part of the initial stages of an agreement that led to his guilty plea on Monday, according to two people with knowledge of the case.

There have been a number of additional arrests in the case, including his father, his uncle and two of his classmates at Flushing High School. Zazi agreed to cooperate in part out of concern that a widening inquiry would result in more charges against his family members, including his mother, said one person involved in the case.