A Terrorist Conspiracy Via Email

On April 3, 2009, Abid Naseer, a 22-year-old Pakistani student, sat in front of his computer in his Manchester, England, apartment and drafted an email to his al-Qaeda handler in Peshawar, Pakistan, announcing that the group’s planned car bombing of a Manchester shopping mall was ready to go. Naseer used code words, referring to the attack as an Islamic wedding, or nikah, and his chosen bomb component, ammonium nitrate, by a woman’s name, Nadia, for nitrate.

“My affair with Nadia is soon turning to family life,” Naseer wrote to “Sohaib,” an alias for his handler. “Both families have agreed to conduct the nikah after the 15th and before the 20th of this month.”

“You should be ready between those dates,” Naseer continued. “I wished you could be here as well to join the party.”

Naseer saved the message to a thumb drive and went to the local Cyber Net Café. He plugged the drive into a public computer and started listening to a violent Arabic recording to psyche himself up. “We are marching toward them with turbans that will become their burial garments,” the chanting went. “They spilled their blood generously and with love. Looking forward to death in large numbers.”

Naseer uploaded the “wedding” message to his email account and sent it to Sohaib. Then Naseer deleted all the emails he had sent to al-Qaeda central in previous months. The clock was now ticking on the Manchester mall attack, possibly on the Easter holiday weekend.

This pivotal moment depicted by Asst. US Attorney Zainab Ahmad in her closing argument this week highlighted the case against Naseer heard by a jury of six men and six women in Brooklyn federal court.

“This man wanted to drive a car bomb into a crowded shopping center and watch people die,” Ahmad told the jury. “If law enforcement hadn’t stopped him, he would be the martyr in heaven he wanted to be.”

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts Wednesday. The two-week trial had numerous novelties — a defendant representing himself in a major terrorism case, British intelligence agents testifying in disguise to protect their identities, documents from Osama Bin Laden’s hideout where he was killed in 2011. But perhaps most unusual was prosecutors’ reliance on emails to achieve a conviction. As the jury saw it, this was a car bomb plot without a car, a bomb, or bomb-making materials in the possession of the defendant or his fellow conspirators.

The Justice Department successfully prosecuted Naseer on evidence comparably thin versus other terrorist bomb plots, both real ones pursued by trained al-Qaeda operatives and imaginary ones pursued by “wanna-be” terrorists nurtured by informants. 

With Naseer, the US took a more expansive view of the Manchester mall plot than the UK, linking it to al-Qaeda’s wider global terror conspiracy driven by senior operatives such as elusive Saudi-American operative Adnan Shukrijumah who was indicted with Naseer in 2010. The US case fingered UK terror cell trainer Rashid Rauf and al-Qaeda external operations chief Saleh al-Somali, both of whom were reportedly killed by drone strikes, as was Shukrijumah.

The US portrayed Naseer as a player in a conspiracy to strike at least three Western targets — in the UK, the US, and Denmark — in 2009 to send a message to the newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama. Instead, all three plots were thwarted.

The UK arrested Naseer and nine other suspects five days after the April 3 ready-to-go email. The UK decision not to prosecute Naseer or anyone has been subject to much second-guessing in London and Manchester.

“There was no evidence of training, research, or the purchasing of explosives,” a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service, England’s equivalent of our Justice Department, said in a statement issued after the verdict in Brooklyn.

UK deported the suspects to their native Pakistan, but Naseer successfully challenged his removal on the grounds that he might be arrested and tortured there. Months went by before the UK took him into custody again at the request of the US.

Naseer’s radicalism can be traced to growing up in Peshawar, the city on the Pakistan border that has been the gateway into Afghanistan for mujahideen fighting Soviet and American soldiers, for Taliban sympathizers, and for al-Qaeda trainees. Naseer was 15 when 9/11 occurred, but he claimed he was not affected by it, or the subsequent conflagrations in Karachi, Islamabad, or the Waziristan region, where al-Qaeda leaders retreated following the US invasion of Afghanistan.

During the trial, prosecutor Ahmad told the jury, Naseer “feigned ignorance of what was happening in his own backyard” and hid “his motivation for wanting revenge.”

In September 2008, Naseer moved to England under a student visa that allowed unlimited entrances and exits. He had enrolled in Liverpool John Moores University but dropped out after one week, saying it was too hard to hold his own in English. But as the jury heard, Naseer is a fluent English speaker.

“The plan was never to study,” Ahmad said in court.

Instead, in the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009, along with accomplices who also dropped out of the Liverpool college, Naseer developed the Manchester mall bombing plan. The US would have been hit that fall by an attack on the New York City subway system led by Najibullah Zazi, a Afghan immigrant who grew up in Queens, New York, with Zazi and his accomplices wearing backpacks filled with homemade bombs, like the 2005 London transit bombers.

Another terrorist cell, based in Norway, would have attacked the Copenhagen newspaper Jyllands-Posten for its irreverent cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, a fate that befell the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January.

“We had sent a number of brothers to Britain … on condition that their work will be completed and ready before the end of the year,” al-Qaeda external operations chief Saleh al-Somali reported to bin Laden in early 2009, according to a letter SEALs removed from bin Laden’s compound that was shown in court. The brothers chose their own targets, Saleh wrote, adding, “We had trained them the best we can within the limits of time and circumstances.”

To underscore the centrality of email evidence, Zazi was the leadoff government witness against Naseer. Although Zazi never met the defendant before testifying against him, the pair had the same al-Qaeda handler — the man Naseer knew as Sohaib — who used the same email account to communicate with them: sana_pakhtana@yahoo.com. Naseer emailed Sohaib only from the Internet café, never from his home computer.

“Sohaib wasn’t emailing anyone who wasn’t al-Qaeda,” prosecutor Ahmad said.

Beyond that link, Zazi testified in his emails the words “marriage” and “wedding” were code words for a plot. Zazi emailed Sohaib in the days before his planned New York subway attack: “The marriage is ready.”

Zazi told this story before. After pleading guilty to terrorism charges in 2010, he became a government cooperator and helped convict a subway plot accomplice in 2012.

Zazi again explained how he learned to make explosives with substances like hydrogen peroxide and ghee oil at an al-Qaeda terrorist training camp in Waziristan in November 2008. Naseer was there at the same time, but prosecutors said the respective US and UK cell leaders did not meet, because al-Qaeda compartmentalizes plots for security.

While Zazi was finishing constructing bombs for a subway attack around the eighth anniversary of 9/11, he emailed Sohaib several times, urgently, for instructions on how to mix the explosive ingredients and gave out his phone number in Colorado. US investigators were monitoring Sohaib’s email, leading to Zazi’s arrest.

There was no trial evidence that Naseer got as far as Zazi — no bomb ingredients, no maps of the targets — but there were surveillance photos of the 200-shop Arndale shopping center in Manchester. UK police found dozens of snapshots of Naseer’s accomplices standing in front of stores like Marks and Spencer — wide shots showing more of the mall than the men — and outside on Market Street, where a car bomb could drive.

In October 2008, Naseer uploaded 61 of these surveillance photos to his email account and left them in his draft folder for his al-Qaeda handler to access — instead of sending them and risking interception by law enforcement.

“This is al-Qaeda tradecraft,” prosecutor Ahmad told the jury.

In November 2008, Naseer went to Pakistan for a few weeks. When he returned to England, he started emailing Sohaib about various women — a series of communications almost comical in the number of newly met women mentioned as bridal candidates he loved. Prosecutors argued their emails discussed explosives and the planned attack.

For example, when Naseer wrote that “Huma” was “very weak and difficult to convince,” prosecutor Ahmad argued, Huma stood for hydrogen peroxide, which can difficult to boil it down into a properly concentrated, explosive solution.

Or when Naseer wrote, “Nadia is crystal clear girl, and it won’t take long to relate with her,” Ahmad argued, Nadia stood ammonium nitrate, a white crystalized substance. Nitrate is easily obtained from fertilizer, or as Naseer put it, Nadia (nitrate) was “very open to friendship.”

Ahmad told the jury other female names in Naseer’s emails, like “Fozia,” stood for flour, like the flour and ghee bomb Zazi sought to construct. “Gulnaz,” who Naseer described as a woman “fond of money,” really stood for a bomb made with spices, which can be expensive, the prosecutor said.

Emails received by Naseer also drew scrutiny. “How is ur sweety girlfriend I miss her a lot” [sic], Sohaib inquired of him in December 2008. “When ever u will mari” [sic], he pressed a month later. Al-Qaeda was anxious to know how the UK plot was proceeding. Sohaib wrote, “see a new car and take buy it and any kind of help from my site plz tell me” [sic].

Seen through the government cipher, Naseer’s January 26, 2009, coded email to Sohaib suggested the car bomb plot was moving forward. “I am satisfied with my company of females,” Naseer wrote. “They are simple and easily manageable. All you have to do is to give them plenty of time. I am constantly in touch with the families of the girls I mentioned before and will choose which ever can be my faithful and loving wife.”

On February 16, 2009, Naseer emailed Sohaib, “You know what girls are like. They demands loads of stuff Jewellery, Dresses, beauty things, many more” [sic]. Ahmad argued the “stuff” was metal ball bearings to be taped around the bombs to send lethal shrapnel flying. Naseer added, “I am saving some money to buy a nice reliable vehicle, which will be enough for my bride.”

On the witness stand and in his closing argument, Naseer told the jury he was just “a bit desperate” to find a suitable Muslim wife and that his correspondent, Sohaib, was someone he befriended in an MSN chat room.

“I never suspected he was a member of al-Qaeda,” Naseer said, insisting he was not either.

Naseer also said it was perfectly normal for a straight man like him to pretend to be a woman while looking for a wife online. He assumed the online identity “Huma Gandapur,” while Sohaib was “Sana Pakhtana,” coincidentally, both men using female first names plus an ethnic group in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region for last names.

“Internet is a world where you have multiple personalities,” Naseer testified. “You meet strangers, and you do not know if they are telling the truth.”

“Did you ever send him any kind of coded message,” assisting attorney James Neuman asked the defendant about his emails to Sohaib.

“No,” Naseer replied, repeatedly. “There’s no code in these emails.” Naseer stuck to his lovelorn story that women like Huma and Nadia were real.

“She said her family liked me,” he testified about Nadia. “She is a very open girl. There is no dark side to her.”

Naseer’s tenuous credibility sank when Ahmad pointed out British MI5 agents who closely watched Naseer for weeks in Manchester never saw him with a woman. Another problem for Naseer was his real ex-girlfriend, Wafa Khan, testified by a video deposition that she had intended to marry the defendant until he deemed her too modern, because she listened to music and watched TV. Naseer called off their wedding in late March 2009. Which made Naseer’s claim in the April 3, 2009 email about a forthcoming marriage ceremony all the more dubious.

Even without physical evidence of bomb preparations, the deconstruction of Naseer’s email exchanges with a known al-Qaeda handler was sufficient proof. It took the jury slightly more than one day of deliberations to convict him on all three terrorism counts — providing material support to al-Qaeda (i.e. himself), conspiring to provide material support to al-Qaeda, and conspiring to use a destructive device (i.e., the Manchester mall bomb).

Naseer has spent most of the last six years incarcerated and could spend the rest of his life in a US prison. Had his plot succeeded, prosecutor Ahmad concluded in her jury remarks, “Hundreds of men, women, and children would not be alive today.” 

About the Author(s)

Phil Hirschkorn

Fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and New York-Based Journalist covering Al Qaeda and terrorism trials for 15 years