British intelligence operatives taking the witness stand disguised with wigs and make-up!
Al Qaeda operatives posing as women in emails!
A high school dropout turned would-be subway bomber turned government witness!
A Pakistani cricket player turned accused terrorist serving as his own lawyer!
All of that will come together in a terror trial that commenced in Brooklyn federal court on Tuesday as U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, nominee to become the next United States attorney general, looked on.
The defendant, 28-year-old Abid Naseer, is charged with being part of an al Qaeda bombing conspiracy that allegedly targeted the New York City subway, a Copenhagen newspaper, and a shopping mall in Manchester, England.
Naseer entered Courtroom 10A in one of the two shirts and one of the two pairs of slacks, but neither of the two ties he had been authorized to receive for the proceedings. He began the day by complaining to Judge Raymond Dearie that he had been searched by a female corrections officer over the weekend.
That complaint assumed a certain irony when prosecutor Celia Cohen alleged during her opening argument that Naseer had posed as a woman when emailing from England to his Qaeda superior in Pakistan. Naseer’s female identities online included Huma, with the email humaonion@yahoo.
"[He was] using women’s names because they were less likely to attract attention,” Cohen said.
Cohen charged that Naseer also employed women’s names as part of a code to report what sort of explosives he had decided to employ.
“The defendant used women’s names to describe bombs,” Cohen said. “What he meant was which bomb.”
Naseer allegedly decided on an explosive he called “Nadia.” He reported via email to a superior named Sohaib that he was going to “marry” her. He here seemed to be using a Qaeda code that goes back to 9/11, which the attackers called a “wedding.”
“With all the talk of marriage and women, the defendant made it look like he had an active love life,” Cohen told the jury.
Cohen said that the evidence in the case will include a letter discussing the plot that was written by the operational head of al Qaeda to the top guy.
“None other than Osama bin Laden,” Cohen reported.
She added, “You will see that chilling reminder in the letter to Osama bin Laden that al Qaeda’s goal was to attack infidels in their home territories.”
The letter is one of eight documents from the hush-hush bin Laden trove that the prosecution plans to introduce at trial. The government had clearly anticipated that the material might be used in criminal proceedings and to that end had sent Supervisory Special Agent Alexander Otte to Afghanistan on April 28, 2011.
“In order to ensure the appropriate acquisition, documentation, and establishment of chain of custody of any items seized during the planned Department of Defense operation to raid the compound of Usama Bin Laden,” court papers state.
When the SEALs returned from the raid, Otte was there to take custody of any seized material, voucher it, and transport it back to the FBI lab, where it was placed in an evidence storage vault.
“Otte will further testify that…the raid force brought the body of Osama bin Laden into the hangar at the base where SSA Otte was stationed,” court papers say.
Other witnesses the government expects to call include six members of MI5 who investigated Naseer and the “Manchester cell” before his arrest in that city in 2009. The judge has agreed to allow the agents to use “personal identification numbers” rather than names and “light disguises” involving “only wigs and light makeup.”
“Neither of which, according to the government, will interfere with the defendant’s or jury’s ability to view the witnesses’ full facial expressions,” the judge wrote in his decision.
But the MI5 guys and the bin Laden papers will come later. The prosecutor’s opening argument on Tuesday was followed by the defense’s turn, in this instance delivered not by an attorney, but by the defendant himself.
Naseer was notably composed as he stood at the podium with a white notepad. He must have worked out behind bars since his 2013 extradition to the U.S., for he looked as fit as he must have been in his days as a cricket star. His lustrous, bushy, black beard would have been the envy of any jihadi, which he now denied ever being, saying he had been “no help to al Qaeda at any time.”
Naseer told that the jury that he actually had been seeking a wife online, particularly on Qiran.com, which promises “matches made in heaven” and “a safe, halal, trusted and comfortable matrimonial experience for all Muslim singles.”
Naseer allowed that he did pose as women online so as to chat with Muslim females “who would not chat with a male.” He said he also used the fake identities to play pranks on friends.
Naseer insisted that he actually had connected with a woman who seemed a good match. He said he had even met her family.
He ended his opening argument and sat down, having demonstrated that he might have made a pretty decent lawyer. The government continued in its effort to prove he was a terrorist, calling an admitted one to the stand as its first witness.
Najibullah Zazi had pled guilty to being one of three members of the New York cell in the three-country conspiracy described in the indictment. He had gone so far as to make the explosives and prepare backpack bombs.
Thankfully, Zazi and his two fellow New York jihadis had been caught before they could follow through on plans to kill as many innocents in the subway as possible. He may have been willing to blow himself to bits in the name of Allah, but just a few months behind bars was enough to cool his ardor and make him willing to cut a deal and maybe avoid a life sentence. He copped to the charges and testified against a New York co-conspirator who had insisted on going to trial.
Zazi signaled his transformation from jihadi to cooperator by being clean-shaven as he now returned to a courtroom to testify against Naseer. Zazi said that before his radicalization he had been a Queens high school dropout who thought America was justified in seeking those responsible for 9/11.
‘A very sorrowful tragedy,” he said. “I thought if 9/11 is by the Taliban or al Qaeda, they deserve to be attacked.”
He said his transformation had come largely as a result of the recorded teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemini-American imam who had departed America while being investigated for patronizing prostitutes and became the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Before he was killed by an American drone strike in 2011, al-Awlaki had radicalized via electronic media everybody from the Fort Hood shooter to the Times Square bomber. Zazi had become yet another one as he listened to al-Awlaki’s CDs.
“Every day for hours,” he said. “When I started listening to the lectures, it changed my mentality.”
He and two similarly radicalized friends also began watching al Qaeda videos.
“Fighting, car bombs, IEDs, firefighters, stuff like that,” he said.
The message was clear.
“They were like calling us, ‘We need young guys to come, join us,’” he testified.
He maxed out his credit cards and bought plane tickets for himself and his two friends to fly to Pakistan in 2008. They planned to continue on to Afghanistan and join the Taliban, but they had encountered an al Qaeda operative who convinced them to conduct jihad back home.
Zazi was ready to testify that he had seen Naseer during weapons and explosives training in Pakistan. Naseer is expected to have an opportunity to cross-examine him on Wednesday.
The testimony so far has served as another reminder that al Qaeda was not a vast array of combatants, but a shoestring criminal operation where a few psychopaths and homicidal fantasists fielded gaggles of losers.
We no doubt could have wiped them out years ago if we had kept that our focus rather than going into Iraq on the basis of monumental and catastrophic lies that remain unaddressed even as we got into a tizzy of Brian Williams’ incidental fish tale.
After bin Laden was killed, there came another hopeful sign in the person of the FBI agent who was waiting to voucher whatever the SEALs seized, just like the evidence in any other crime.
And because of that chain of custody, eight of those documents will be presented to a jury in a Brooklyn courtroom along with recovered emails of a defendant who objects to being searched by a woman but was happy to pose as one online.