- Abid Naseer, 28, found guilty of planning to drive car bomb into Arndale
- Also convicted of separate plots in U.S. and on Copenhagen newspaper
- 'Hundreds of innocent' people could have died had he completed plans
- Told court of his love for Manchester City in bid to serve term in the UK
- MI5 officers were forced to give evidence wearing make-up and wigs
Convicted: Abid Naseer planned to drive a car bomb into a shopping centre
A Pakistani student who plotted to bomb Manchester's Arndale Centre on one of its busiest weekends has been jailed for 40 years in America.
Abid Naseer, 29, was handed the sentence after he was found guilty of planning to carry out the failed Manchester bombing, as well as a terrorist attack on the New York Subway and a Danish newspaper.
Naseer made a bizarre plea to serve his sentence in the UK, citing his love of Premier League football team Manchester City as a reason for him to be allowed to return to Britain.
Prosecutors called it one of the most serious terror plots since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, with Brooklyn's Federal Court told that 'hundreds of innocent men, women and children' could have died had Naseer been able to go ahead with the bombings.
However, it was foiled just days before Naseer was due to carry out the attack.
Speaking today, Judge Raymond Dearie told Naseer: 'You are not a typical criminal. You are a terrorist.'
Naseer pleaded to be allowed to spend his sentence in Britain, saying he had ‘nothing but good memories’ of his time there, especially his beloved Manchester City who he used to watch every weekend.
‘They were the winners in 2012 and this year they are top of the league table,’ he told the judge – apparently unaware they have now been supplanted by Leicester City after a heavy defeat by Liverpool at the weekend.
However Judge Raymond Dearie said that he did not have the authority to grant his request, jailing Naseer for 40 years at Brooklyn’s Federal Court.
The case took place after Naseer, who arrived from Peshwar on a student visa in 2008, was extradited from the UK to the States.
Naseer was directed and commissioned by Al Qaeda to attack Manchester, forming part of a broader Al Qaeda conspiracy calling on other cells to attack civilians in the U.S. and Holland.
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 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.
They arrested him in April 2009, along with 11 others.
However, despite the evidence officers had collected, the Crown Prosecution Service insisted it was insufficient to secure a conviction in the UK.
He was then released on to Britain's streets despite having the capacity to kill, police said. It was left to the U.S. to step in and extradite - and eventually convict - the terrorist.
Once in court, Naseer had pleaded not guilty to providing and conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda and conspiring to use a destructive device.
He even acted as his own lawyer throughout the trial, often referring to himself in the third person and portraying himself as a moderate Muslim who was falsely accused.
Amid claims that he was a bookish, cricket-loving college student, he told the court that online messages he sent on Muslim dating websites were not secret communications to Al Qaeda.
'Abid is innocent,' Naseer said in closing arguments in March, adding: 'He is not a terrorist. He is not an Al Qaeda operative.'
Later, defense lawyer James Neuman argued there was nothing to back up any claim he was a 'hardened criminal', saying the evidence at trial had been limited, that Naseer had never been found in possession of bomb-making materials and questioning how close the plot had been to execution.
During the trial, five MI5 agents gave evidence wearing makeup and wigs to disguise their appearance and told how they had Naseer and his associates under surveillance for months.
Amid bizarre scenes in court, the four male and one female agents appeared to modify their accents - one wore a fake beard and thick black glasses - as a minder looked on, also in disguise.
Most of the case had hinged on email exchanges in 2009 between Naseer and a person described by prosecutors as an Al Qaeda handler who was directing plots to attack civilians in Manchester, New York City and Copenhagen.
Naseer insisted the emails consisted only of harmless banter about looking for a potential bride after going to England to take computer science classes.
He 'wanted to settle down,' he said, adding: 'Is there anything wrong with that?'
But the prosecutor accused Naseer of lying on the witness stand by claiming the women he wrote about were real.
She said the women's names were actually code for home-made bomb ingredients: Nadia stood for ammonium nitrate and Huma for hydrogen peroxide.
Sentencing, Judge Dearie said he could not understand how an intelligent young man, who had been a 'champion cricket player' with a good life from a privileged and loving family could turn to terrorism.
He said: ‘I’m trying to understand how this young man, this intelligent young man who has never been arrested before, was a champion cricketer, footballer, lived a good life, reasonable privilege, loving family - how you get from that to this.
‘As much as I search to try and to understand it I don’t.’
He added: ‘In the UK and the US when it comes to terrorism the only border that really counts is the border between good and evil and you are on the wrong side of that, Mr Naseer.’
'I do hope that you return to the path of learning and education. That's the only hope.'
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.
Assistant US Attorney Zainab Ahmad said that if Greater Manchester Police had not stopped him then ‘hundreds if not thousands of people would be dead today’.
Following Naseer’s conviction, the detective who helped lead the original British inquiry, retired detective chief inspector Allan Donoghue, questioned the CPS judgement to release him, adding: ‘The whole command team believed that there was sufficient evidence.'
Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Mole, from the North West Counter-Terrorism Unit (NWCTU), said he was happy with the term handed to Naseer.
'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,' he said.