US jails Pakistani terror convict Abid Naseer for 40 years

 Abid Naseer is seen in a courtroom sketch.
Abid Naseer is seen in a courtroom sketch.REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - A 29-year-old Pakistani former school cricket captain was jailed for 40 years in the United States on Tuesday for plotting to bomb a British shopping centre with Al-Qaeda.

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

"You are not a typical criminal," Judge Raymond Dearie told Naseer in the US federal court in Brooklyn. "You are a terrorist."

Naseer was convicted in March of helping Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan plan the Manchester attack as part of a plot that would also target the New York subway and a Danish newspaper.

A US jury found him guilty of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organisation, conspiring to provide material support to Al-Qaeda and with conspiring to use a destructive device.

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.

"I do hope that you return to the path of learning and education," he told the defendant. "That's the only hope."

American prosecutors called it one of the most serious terror plots since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. They tried the case because of the link to the subway plot.

"The only border that really counts is the one between good and evil, and you're on the wrong side of that, Mr Naseer," Dearie said.

Naseer, who moved to Britain in 2006 on a student visa, told the court that he wanted to serve the remainder of his sentence in Britain.

Reeling off his ambitions for future studies, he spoke of his love for English premier league soccer and his favourite team, Manchester City.

"This year they are top of the league table," he noted, but stopped short of making any apology or expressing any regret for his actions.

Instead, he said it was his "firm intention" to obtain a masters degree in computing and study human physiology, following his stint as captain of the cricket team at school.

"I have spent most of my life in search of studies," he said, asking to be sent back to Britain on the grounds that he had "nothing but good memories my life in the United Kingdom."

US prosecutors say he came within days of executing the plot, directed by senior Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, and which was thwarted only thanks to Greater Manchester police.

"There is no reason to believe he's anything but as committed to the cause as he was at the time of his arrest," assistant US attorney Zainab Ahmad told the court.

Prosecutors say he was dispatched to Britain by Al-Qaeda in 2006 to begin preparations for the attack, arriving on a student visa but immediately dropping out of university.

Defence lawyer James Neuman appealed for a lesser sentence of under 30 years, saying that there was nothing in his background to suggest he was a hardened criminal.

He had a happy, Pakistani childhood, a good education, growing up watching TV and movies and liking girls and loved playing cricket - similar to a typical American upbringing, Neuman said.

He said the evidence at trial had been limited, that Naseer had never been found in possession of bomb-making materials and questioned how close the plot had been to execution.

Friends and relatives wrote letters describing him as a thoughtful, kind and gentle person.

"Is this really a man beyond redemption?" Neuman said.

"I see an extremely intelligent person who is unfailingly polite and courteous."

Dearie said it did not matter that the plot had failed, if Naseer had been ready, willing and able to unleash carnage.

Naseer, who defended himself at trial, intends to appeal.