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To Fight Terrorism, Play the Odds

February 23, 2015

A bizarre terrorism trial is playing out in Brooklyn federal court, where an alleged Pakistani-born terrorist is accused of planning to blow up a supermarket in Manchester, England, as part of an international plot.

Equally bizarre is that the alleged terrorist, Abid Naseer, is acting as his own attorney, and, according to his court-appointed legal adviser, James Neuman, plans to testify this week in his defense.

Prosecutors say that evidence from email accounts reveals that Naseer worked for the same al Qaeda handler who coordinated bombing plots in Copenhagen, Denmark and in New York City.

Prosecutors added that a document recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound refers to the plots in Manchester and New York, and mentions Naseer.

The New York plot was led by Denver-based Najibullah Zazi who planned to plant bombs in the subways on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2009. Law enforcement officials regard it as the most serious terrorist operation against the city since the World Trade Center attack.

Adding to the aura of international intrigue, witnesses at Naseer’s trial last week included Manchester police officers and an officer from MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency, who wore a wig to hide his identity. The unidentified officer testified that he had followed Naseer for four to five weeks in March and April, 2009, and that, while seated behind him on a bus from Manchester to Liverpool, he saw Naseer watch a video on his mobile phone of a plane slamming into one of the Twin Towers.

So if Naseer was plotting to blow up a supermarket in Manchester, England, why is he being prosecuted in Brooklyn and not in Great Britain?

“British prosecutors felt there wasn’t enough evidence to bring him [Naseer] to trial in England,” said Neuman. He added that, when Naseer’s English attorneys suspected he might be indicted in the United States, they sought, unsuccessfully, to have him tried in England.

An American terrorism expert expanded on this. “Great Britain has a terrific record of identifying terrorists, penetrating them, catching them and interdicting their plots but they have a less than stellar record in convicting them or even bringing them to trial,” he said.

That’s hardly the case in the United States — in New York City and state in particular — where fear of 9/11 still resonates, and every high-profile terrorist who goes to trial is convicted, some on what appears to be flimsy evidence.

You can begin with the Herald Square bombing plot, where, with great fanfare on the eve of the 2004 Republican convention, the NYPD arrested Pakistani immigrant Matin Siraj.

Convicted at trial, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, despite the fact that the NYPD paid $100,000 to a confidential informant who encouraged him in the plot, and despite the fact that Siraj’s co-defendant had recently been released from a mental institution and immediately after his arrest agreed to testify against Siraj.

Or take the case of the Newburgh Four, who were also arrested with great fanfare — the NYPD used an 18-wheel armored personnel carrier to block their escape — and charged with plotting to shoot down military airplanes and blow up two Bronx synagogues. They were convicted at trial, despite the FBI’s having paid $250,000 to a confidential informant who egged them on. Each was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Similar results have continued to the present. Last year, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of bin Laden, was convicted at trial in Manhattan and sentenced to life in prison for acting as an al-Quaeda spokesman after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last month, the radical London cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who lost an eye and both hands in an explosion, was given two consecutive life sentences relating to the kidnapping of 16 tourists in Yemen. The former imam of a London mosque, Hamza had been extradited from Great Britain to the U.S. in 2012 to stand trial.

Back in the Brooklyn courtroom last week, Naseer seemed to be doing well as his own attorney. Wearing slacks and an open–necked dress shirt, with a trimmed black beard, he spoke English with barely the trace of an accent. His questions were focused and pointed. Most impressive was his composure. He was polite and restrained. He began his questioning of each witness by saying “Good morning.” At least in the courtroom, he was treated by both prosecutors and Judge Raymond Dearie with deference as a lawyer — not as a terrorist.

Under cross-examination by Naseer, Zazi, who after his arrest in the subway plot became a cooperating government witness, acknowledged he had never met Naseer or heard of his Manchester bomb plot.

“Mr. Zazi, do you know the defendant who is asking you the questions?” Naseer asked.

“I don’t know,” Zazi answered. “I don’t happen to remember your face.”

“Have you heard the name Abid Naseer in any of the conversation in the training camps that you had?”

“Not that I remember,” said Zazi.

“And have you heard any conversations about Abid Naseer while you were conspiring with your friends in New York?”

“No,” Zazi said.

So can Naseer beat Brooklyn prosecutors at their own game in a court of law? Even as he testifies in his own defense?

Statistically, he hasn’t got a chance.

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