Bewigged British Spies Add Intrigue to U.S. Terror Trial

Five British spies, cloaked in wigs and makeup, added intrigue to a New York trial over an alleged al-Qaeda plot, but provided limited evidence in testimony.

Masking the identities of the members of the U.K. Security Service, otherwise known as MI5, was seen as so important that U.S. prosecutors asked that courtroom sketch artists only be allowed to draw them with blank features and “generic” hair.

The intelligence officers testified Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court in the trial of Abid Naseer, 28, who is accused of plotting in 2009 to bomb a shopping center in Manchester, England, as part of al-Qaeda’s broader plan to also target New York subways and a newspaper in Copenhagen.

The testimony, which had been described as essential by the government, consisted mostly of observations of Naseer as he moved between a local college, a mosque and a cyber cafe in March and April of 2009.

The four men and one woman described following Naseer, whom they referred to by the name “Small Panel,” as part of a counter-terrorism investigation called Operation Pathway.

One of the officers, identified as “1498,” said that in April 2009, days before the ultimately foiled attack had been planned, Naseer “appeared tense” when he stopped at a grocery store. Naseer also met other men under surveillance, referred to by the spies as “Glass Pendant” and “Happy Skater.”

In a Feb. 22 letter, prosecutors said the spies’ testimony is “essential” to the government’s case “because the officers were the sole witnesses to many of the operational activities undertaken by the defendant in preparation for his plan to conduct an al-Qaeda attack in Manchester,” including “meetings with co-conspirators, sending coded messages to al-Qaeda leadership” and “scouting potential target locations.”

Repeat 9/11

During opening statements Feb. 17, Assistant U.S. Attorney Celia Cohen said Naseer, a Pakistani, joined in a scheme that the terrorism group hoped would “repeat the devastation of 9/11.” Prosecutors’ evidence includes a letter recovered from the compound of Osama bin Laden providing information about Naseer’s operation and two other cells.

Naseer, who is representing himself, told jurors his online communication activities related to his efforts to find a wife. E-mail messages at issue referred to a “wedding” and “marriage.” Prosecutors allege those were code words for attacks.

Naseer, who denies wrongdoing, was extradited from the U.K. in 2013. He’s in U.S. custody and faces charges including conspiracy to use a destructive device and providing material support to al-Qaeda. He faces life in prison if convicted.

A New York man recruited by al-Qaeda, Adis Medunjanin, was jailed for life in 2012 after he was convicted in the subway plot.

The case is U.S. v. Medunjanin, 1:10-cr-00019, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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