A bizarre terrorism trial is unfolding in Brooklyn federal court, where a Pakistani-born man 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 his own attorney, and according to his court-appointed legal adviser, James Neuman, plans to testify in his defense.
Prosecutors say email accounts reveal Naseer worked for the same al-Qaida handler who coordinated bombing plots in Copenhagen, Denmark, and New York City. Prosecutors added that a document recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan refers to the plots in Manchester and NYC and mentions Naseer. The NYC plot was led by Denver-based Najibullah Zazi, who planned bombs in the subways in 2009. Officials regarded it as the most serious terror operation against the city since the 9/11 attack.
So if Naseer allegedly plotted to blow up a supermarket in Manchester, why is he being prosecuted in Brooklyn?
"British prosecutors felt there wasn't enough evidence to bring him to trial in England," Neuman said. He said that when Naseer's English attorneys suspected he might be indicted in the United States, they unsuccessfully sought 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," said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the case.
That's hardly the case in the United States, where fear of 9/ll still resonates, and every high-profile terrorist who goes to trial is convicted, some on what seems to be flimsy evidence.
In the 2004 Herald Square bombing plot, the NYPD arrested Pakistani immigrant Shahawar Matin Siraj. He was convicted at trial and sentenced to 30 years, even though the NYPD paid $100,000 to an informant who encouraged him in the plot, and Siraj's co-defendant had recently been released from a mental institution.
In the 2009 case of the Newburgh Four, authorities charged them 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.
Last year, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of bin Laden, was convicted in Manhattan and sentenced to life in prison for acting as an al-Qaida spokesman after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Last month, the radical London cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri was given two consecutive life sentences in the kidnapping of 16 tourists in Yemen. The former imam of a London mosque, Abu Hamza had been extradited to the United States in 2012 to stand trial.
Back in Brooklyn, Naseer seems to be doing well as his own attorney. He speaks English with barely the trace of an accent. His questions are focused and pointed. Most impressive is his composure. He is polite and restrained. He begins his questioning of each witness with "Good morning." He is treated by prosecutors and Judge Raymond Dearie with the deference they give lawyers.
Under cross-examination last week by Naseer, Zazi, who after his arrest in the subway plot became a government witness, said he had never met Naseer nor heard of the alleged 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 conversations in the training camps that you had?"
"Not that I remember," said Zazi.
"And have you heard any conversation about Abid Naseer while you were conspiring with your friends in New York?"
"No," Zazi said.
So, can Naseer beat federal prosecutors at their own game?
Statistically, he hasn't got a chance.