Spies in disguise testify at US terror trial

Assistant US Attorney Celia Cohen (right) makes opening statements in the trial of Pakistani citizen Abid Naseer (left), 28, as seen in a courtroom sketch in Brooklyn, New York Feb 17, 2015. Spies working for Britain's MI5 intelligence agency do
Assistant US Attorney Celia Cohen (right) makes opening statements in the trial of Pakistani citizen Abid Naseer (left), 28, as seen in a courtroom sketch in Brooklyn, New York Feb 17, 2015. Spies working for Britain's MI5 intelligence agency donned wigs and makeup on Tuesday to testify against a Pakistani Al-Qaeda suspect on trial in New York for allegedly plotting to blow up a British shopping centre. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - Spies working for Britain's MI5 intelligence agency donned wigs and makeup on Tuesday to testify against a Pakistani Al-Qaeda suspect on trial in New York for allegedly plotting to blow up a British shopping centre.

Four surveillance officers, identified by four-digit numbers, detailed how they followed the defendant, Abid Naseer, in March and April 2009 in the cities of Manchester and Liverpool in northern England.

District judge Raymond Dearie prohibited court artists from drawing the faces of a total of five members of MI5 who are expected to testify, allowing only blank faces and generic haircuts to be depicted.

The witnesses entered the federal court in Brooklyn from a side entrance, precluding any possibility of mingling with members of the press and public who use the main public entrance into the court room.

Two of the men, as well as the one woman agent, wore heavy black and dark-brown wigs and partially shielded their eyes behind spectacles.

Two of the men were bearded; the other male agent appeared clean-shaven, with short greying hair.

From behind their disguises, the four agents said they watched the defendant visit a Manchester shopping centre, allegedly the intended target.

They also monitored him as he visited a mosque and an Internet cafe and travelled to Liverpool.

The agents all identified the defendant, who is representing himself in court, as the man they knew by the codename "small panel" as part of Operation Pathway that led up to his initial arrest in Britain in 2009.

US government prosecutors say Naseer helped Al-Qaeda planned an assault on the shopping centre as part of coordinated attacks that also targeted the New York subway and a Danish newspaper.

Prosecutors called it one of the most serious terror plots since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

DENIES THE CHARGES

Naseer, who denies the charges, faces life in prison if convicted.

He is charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organisation, conspiring to provide material support to Al-Qaeda and with conspiring to use a destructive device.

The surveillance officers said they followed the defendant in the company of two other men, code-named Happy Skater and Glass Pendant.

Naseer, acting as his own defence attorney, cross-examined two of the spies who once tailed him.

One wore a John Lennon-style dark brown wig and thin-rimmed spectacles.

The second pointedly stayed silent when Naseer opened his cross-examination with a two-times greeting of "good morning."

Crucially to the government's case, the officers said they had never seen the defendant - who was in Britain as a student - go to college, carry any books, or in the company of a woman.

The defence argues that Naseer was embarked on a quest to get married and not carry out the attack.

He was first arrested in 2009 in Britain with 11 other men suspected of preparing an attack against the Manchester mall, and was extradited to the United States from Britain in 2013.

The other men were released without charge, but Naseer was arrested for a second time in July 2010 at the request of Brooklyn prosecutors, who accused him of participating in the plot to attack the New York subway in 2009.