NEW YORK (AP) — When the trial of reputed al-Qaida operative Abid Naseer begins this week, jurors are expected to hear an opening statement from the defendant himself, the latest terrorism suspect prepared to act as his own attorney in an American courtroom.
The Pakistani defendant's decision to represent himself will be one twist in a trial certain to have others, including the first use of evidence seized during the Navy SEAL raid in 2011 that left Osama bin Laden dead and testimony from British secret agents who will wear wigs and makeup on the witness stand to conceal their identities. Opening statements are set for Tuesday.
Naseer, 28, was extradited in 2013 to New York City, where he pleaded not guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to charges he was part of an al-Qaida conspiracy in 2009 that included failed plots to bomb a shopping mall in Manchester, England, and subways in New York City. Two government witnesses expected to testify against Naseer — Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay — pleaded guilty in the subway plot.
Prosecutors claim that email account evidence shows all three men were under the direction of the same al-Qaida handler. They also say a document recovered during the bin Laden raid — now declassified — mentions Naseer and refers to the Manchester and New York schemes.
Other witnesses will include MI5 agents who conducted surveillance on Naseer while investigating the Manchester case. At a pretrial hearing, U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie approved the disguise request after prosecutors told him in court papers that the officers continue to work undercover on sensitive cases and "disclosure of their identities would pose a significant risk to their safety."
The agents will testify using identification numbers rather than names and wearing wigs and light makeup, "neither of which will impair the defendant's or the jury's ability to view the witnesses' facial expressions and assess their credibility and demeanor," the papers added.
Secret agents or informants testifying in disguise are rare but not unprecedented. An undercover FBI agent wore a disguise while testifying at the 2013 trial of a man accused of trying to set off a bomb at an Oregon holiday tree-lighting ceremony, and prosecutors have made a similar request for FBI witnesses slated to take the stand at the upcoming Florida trial of a Kenyan man accused of supporting terrorism.
Naseer was one of 12 people arrested in Britain in April 2009 on suspicion they were members of an al-Qaida-backed terror cell. 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.
In a lengthy written statement submitted during the deportation proceedings, Naseer claimed to come from a moderate Muslim family that stressed education. He said he went to Great Britain to get a degree in computer science, not to attack the West, he said.
"Committing terrorist acts is not justified and I do not consider this to be jihad," he said. "I believe in spiritual jihad."
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.
"I used to spend all night on the internet in chat rooms talking to girls," he wrote.
He also denied allegations that he used code words to conceal messages about the terror plots. In one, he talked about having a "party" in Manchester in April 2009 — what British counterterrorism officials said was the proposed time for the attack.
"My reference to holding a huge party and trying to include as many as possible was referring to the intended wedding," he said.
Authorities rearrested Naseer in July 2010 at the request of U.S. prosecutors. If convicted, he faces a possible life sentence.
Naseer won't be the first terror suspect who has represented himself in a U.S. court: Zacarias Moussaoui, the first man charged in connection with the September 11, 2001, attacks, was allowed to act as his own counsel until a judge stripped him of that right for filing what she called frivolous and disrespectful motions. And Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab also represented himself before pleading guilty in 2011 to charges he tried to blow up a commercial airliner with a bomb sewed into his underwear.