Assistant US Attorney in the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) Zainab Ahmad has prosecuted 13 people for terrorism since 2009 and has won every single case.
Ahmad’s parents were a part of the Pakistani diaspora. They settled in New York, where Ahmad was born and raised. She spoke about how being Muslim-American played into her decision to fight terrorism, saying “Many American-Muslims feel that it’s their own culture and their own community that are being hijacked, which makes it a particularly important goal for them to hold accountable the perpetrators of terrorism.”
Ahmad’s work focuses on counterterrorism and extraterritorial cases, meaning she travels outside the US and gathers evidence related to cases involving acts of terror against the US. In recent years, Ahmad prosecuted one of the highest-profile terrorists of recent years, Abid Naseer, the ringleader of a plot to bomb a shopping center in the UK.
In 2008, nine men entered the UK from Pakistan on student visas, then immediately dropped out of school. Naseer was one of them. It was an alert to UK authorities, who began surveillance on the men. They found that the men were surveying high-traffic areas before focusing their attention on a shopping center in Manchester.
“We devoted all of our counterterrorism resources to this surveillance,” said Manchester detective Mark Smith, who was leading the terror investigation force. “We had twenty-five, twenty-six teams trying to watch nine guys. What if one of these guys goes off the radar? The risk was high. When we saw the attack dates e-mail, we had to strike.”
UK authorities cracked down as much as they could on the men, but instead of finding incriminating evidence, they found bad press. To relieve some of the pressure from the media, the government attempted to deport the men instead of prosecute them. However, Naseer fought his deportation, claiming that it was too unsafe for him to return to Pakistan, and he was allowed to stay in the UK.
At that time, UK intelligence tipped off the FBI that the same al-Qaeda handler’s email which Naseer was reporting to had started receiving emails from someone in the US asking for bomb-making instructions. The American was arrested, and Ahmad was off to the UK, collecting evidence on Naseer.
Piecing together a narrative wherein Naseer was a part of an international plot by al-Qaeda to bomb high-traffic areas in the US and Europe, Ahmad was able to prosecute Naseer on US soil. Those who attended the hearing witnessed Ahmad compose the evidence surrounding Naseer’s terror-related activities.
The chief of the Eastern District’s Criminal Division at the time James McGovern said, “You want to project: I am the most reasonable person in the room. Zainab excels at that. Jurors believe that they would see eye to eye with her about things. People want to say, ‘That really impressive person, I want to be in agreement with that person.’” Naseer was convicted on all accounts and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Last year, the Obama Administration welcomed Ahmad to work in the Justice Department in Washington. After accepting the offer, Ahmad traveled to foreign capitals, oversaw 70 prosecutions, led delegations, and more. With the transition to the Trump Administration, Ahmad saw that she would have an easier time pursuing counterterrorism cases back in EDNY. She returned to EDNY in April and is currently awaiting trial for two individuals suspected of terror-related activities.
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