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40-year US jail term for man who plotted to bomb Manchester's Arndale Centre

Published 24/11/2015

Abid Naseer plotted to bomb Manchester's Arndale Centre (Greater Manchester Police/PA)
Abid Naseer plotted to bomb Manchester's Arndale Centre (Greater Manchester Police/PA)

A man who plotted to bomb Manchester's Arndale Centre on one of its busiest weekends has been jailed in America.

Pakistani-born Abid Naseer, 29, was sentenced to 40 years in prison after he was found guilty of planning to carry out the failed UK bombing as well as a terrorist attack on the New York Subway, a New York US attorney said.

Naseer, who was directed and commissioned by al Qaida to attack Manchester, had come to the city from Peshawar, Pakistan, on a student visa in November 2008 and was at the head of a UK-based cell.

Prosecutors in New York said that the British plot had been part of a broader al Qaida conspiracy calling on other cells to attack civilians in New York and the Danish Embassy.

Whilst living in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester he had conspired to use a potential vehicle bomb to blow up the city's shopping centre on the Easter Bank Holiday weekend in 2009.

The North-West Counter Terrorism Unit estimated that there could have been up to 90,000 people in the area - citing the bank holiday weekend as the busiest weekend after Christmas.

They said that hundreds of people would have been maimed and killed in the attack, with thousands injured, had the operation not been foiled days earlier.

They said Naseer's strategy had been to detonate the bomb outside retail store Next in a saloon-type car - less than 100 metres from where the IRA struck in 1996.

He was to then use a secondary device to kill and injure more shoppers as they fled the centre into nearby Market Street.

In a statement Robert Capers, United States Attorney, said: "This al Qaida plot was intended by the group's leaders and Naseer to send a message to the United States and its allies .

"Today's sentence sends an even more powerful message in response: terrorists who target the US and its allies will be held accountable for their violent crimes to the full extent of the law."

FBI assistant director-in-charge Diego Rodriguez said that, rather than use the British education visa system to further his own life, Naseer exploited it "to take away the lives of many others in large numbers".

He added: "Trained in weapons and explosives, he communicated in code to hide his evil intentions.

"Found guilty in a court of law, he has been spared the fate of death he wished upon others and will spend considerable time incarcerated in a country he and his co-conspirators failed to take down."

Mr Rodriguez said the case highlighted the importance of "closely coordinated international law enforcement" that has the "necessary authority and tools" to undermine terrorist plots.

Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Mole, from the North West Counter-Terrorism Unit (NWCTU), said: "A sentence of 40 years, we believe, is a fitting punishment for a man who came so close to carrying out what would have been one of the horrific terrorist acts seen in the UK since the 7/7 bombings.

"They planned to strike on Easter weekend, the second busiest shopping day of the year, when between 40,000 and 90,000 people would have been in the targeted areas throughout the weekend.

"The actions of the NWCTU and our partners in the security service potentially saved the lives of hundreds of people that day, and struck a hammer blow to the heart of al Qaida's plans in the UK."

News that the plot had been thwarted was later found in a letter received by Osama bin Laden. The document was seized when US special forces stormed his Pakistan compound in May 2011.

Naseer was detained by officers executing a "safety arrest" just days before the attack was due to take place on Easter weekend 2009.

Intelligence agencies had intercepted messages between him and an al Qaida handler using a code to plan a bombing with mass casualties.

In the exchange the pair discussed having a niqah - an Islamic marriage ceremony - with "many guests", and used female Islamic names in place of home-made bomb-making ingredients - Nadia stood for ammonium nitrate and Huma for hydrogen peroxide.

Naseer, who had enrolled on a computer science course at Liverpool John Moores University, was under police observation from his arrival in the UK on a student visa.

Detectives described the coded email exchanges as "credible" evidence, although at the time the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to charge him and the terrorist was later extradited to the US.

Earlier this year the CPS said the evidence that was available to them was "very limited" and, while it supported extradition, it was not sufficient to support a prosecution in a British court.

Naseer was extradited to the United States in 2013 and became the eighth individual to face charges in the US over a global al Qaida plot that identified targets in America, Britain and Norway.

Prosecutors said he received bomb-making instructions while in Pakistan in 2008 and left with a list of targets in New York, Manchester and Copenhagen.

However Naseer maintained his innocence and denied he was an al Qaida operative, claiming the wedding emails were a light-hearted exchange between friends.

He represented himself during the trial, which resulted in him cross-examining Najibullah Zazi, a prosecution witness who had pleaded guilty to plotting an attack on the New York subway.

Five British MI5 agents gave evidence during the trial in disguise, with one spy taking the stand in a fake beard and thick black glasses.

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