NEW YORK -- A Pakistani terrorism suspect on trial in New York was among several young recruits under orders by al-Qaida to infiltrate Western society and pull off the biggest operation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Celia Cohen told jurors in federal court in Brooklyn that the failed conspiracy in 2009 called for attacks in New York City, England and Denmark. She said 28-year-old Abid Naseer, who is acting as his own attorney, headed a cell in Manchester, England, where he attended college as part of his cover and communicated in coded emails with his al-Qaida handler about the cell's plan to attack a shopping mall.
"That was the whole point of the Western operatives. ... They knew how to blend in and conduct reconnaissance and pick the best target," Cohen said. The goal, she added, was to "repeat the devastation of 9/11."
The jury will be the first to see evidence seized during the Navy SEAL raid in 2011 that left Osama bin Laden dead, Cohen said.
In his opening statement, Naseer read in a monotone from prepared remarks in which he referred to himself in the third person. The time he spent on the Internet on sites like Qiran.com was part of his quest to find a woman to marry, he said.
"The evidence at trial will not show the defendant is an al-Qaida member. ... He has no extremist or jihadist views," Naseer said.
Naseer objected several times during the testimony by the first government witness, former Queens resident Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty in the New York City part of the plot that targeted the subways. For instance, he challenged the introduction of a photo of bin Laden, but was overruled.
"I agree with you that this case is not about 9/11," U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie told Naseer during a break. But the judge said Zazi should be able to reference bin Laden in describing how he became radicalized.
Aside from Zazi, other witnesses will include testimony from British secret agents who will wear wigs and makeup on the witness stand to conceal their identities. The agents conducted surveillance on Naseer and other terror suspects in Britain before their arrests in April 2009. After no explosives were found, the men were released without being charged but ordered to leave the country -- a fate Naseer avoided after a judge ruled it was likely he would be mistreated if he were sent to Pakistan.
Naseer was rearrested at the request of U.S. prosecutors and extradited to the United States in 2013.