Zainab Ahmad had a small disaster in Saudi Arabia. “I always borrowed an abaya from the legat in Riyadh,” she said. An abaya is the full-length robe that is required dress for women and girls in Saudi Arabia. “Legat” is short for the legal-attaché office, the F.B.I. presence in an American Embassy. Ahmad is an Assistant United States Attorney with the Eastern District of New York. “A button came undone during a meeting, and suddenly it was like something out of ‘Showgirls.’ ” Ahmad laughed. The Saudis were unamused. “After that, I went and bought my own abaya on Atlantic Ave.”
We were sitting in a diner on Cadman Plaza, across from the Brooklyn federal courthouse. Ahmad, who is thirty-seven, was looking litigation-ready, in a well-cut dark suit and a cream blouse. “That’s Judge Glasser,” she whispered, motioning with her eyes toward another table. “He did the Gotti trial.”
The Eastern District of New York has long been known for its work against organized crime. Since the September 11th attacks, E.D.N.Y. has also become an aggressive prosecutor of terrorism, securing more convictions than any other U.S. Attorney’s office. Ahmad’s specialty is counterterrorism, her subspecialty “extraterritorial” cases, which means that she spends a great deal of time overseas, negotiating with foreign officials, interviewing witnesses, often in prison, and combing the ground for evidence in terror-related crimes against Americans. She spends time in American prisons as well, typically with convicted jihadists. A former supervisor of Ahmad’s told me that she has probably logged more hours talking to “legitimate Al Qaeda members, hardened terrorist killers,” than any other prosecutor in America.
“They’re treasure troves of information about the networks, once they decide to coöperate,” Ahmad told me. “Some of them didn’t expect to be here, to face any consequences. Their plan was suicide. Now they’re very vulnerable. Everybody’s human. You pull the levers.” The main lever that prosecutors have with coöperators is a reduced sentence. For naïve young men, disenchanted with jihad and looking at forty years to life, that can be a powerful incentive to talk. Ahmad may ask them to testify in court. She has prosecuted thirteen people for terrorism since 2009, and has not lost a case.
That week, in the courthouse across the street, she had finished a hearing in the case of a Malian man accused of murdering an American diplomat in Niger. In December, 2000, William Bultemeier, a military attaché, was gunned down in a midnight carjacking outside a restaurant in the capital. The accused was Alhassane Ould Mohamed, also known as Cheibani, who was famed around the Sahel as a smuggler. He was arrested, and the case seemed strong. Bultemeier’s vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser that belonged to the Embassy, was recovered in Timbuktu, and Cheibani’s fingerprints and DNA were found inside. A security guard at an Air Afrique office testified to seeing him commit the shooting.
In 2002, though, Cheibani escaped from jail, and reportedly went to work for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A.Q.I.M. finances its campaigns by smuggling and by kidnapping Westerners, and Cheibani was said to have participated in the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats in 2008. After a subsequent attack on a Saudi convoy in Niger left four dead, he was caught, tried, and sentenced to twenty years. Then he escaped again, in a mass breakout mounted by Boko Haram.
In 2012, Ahmad got the Bultemeier investigation, by then a very cold case, reassigned to E.D.N.Y. The next year, with Cheibani “in the wind,” as Ahmad put it, she obtained an indictment, and soon afterward the French Army caught him in an Al Qaeda column in northern Mali.
In Brooklyn, Cheibani’s lawyers, public federal defenders, had requested a suppression hearing, hoping to quash some of the prosecution’s evidence on constitutional grounds. Such hearings are a chance for the defense to get a preview of the government’s case. The preview that Cheibani and his lawyers got was discouraging. “They know Zainab’s reputation,” a federal prosecutor who has worked with Ahmad said. “They know their chances are not good.”
Ahmad had made numerous trips to West Africa, chasing leads, collecting evidence, interviewing potential witnesses. For the hearing, she brought in seventeen witnesses from Niger and Mali, few of whom were prepared for a New York winter. “Half of them had only sandals,” Ahmad said. “We were all frantically scraping up coats, hats, shoes. We came this close to putting a woman on the stand in a yellow hat with a pompom.” At the hearing, in the marble and mahogany grandeur of a Brooklyn federal courtroom, Cheibani was presumably astonished to see seventeen Africans ready to testify against him. On March 24, 2016, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, and was subsequently given a sentence of twenty-five years. “He’s not an ideological jihadist,” Ahmad said. “He’s in it for the money. But a lot of people are in it for the money, and his knowledge of the Sahel has been very valuable to A.Q.I.M.”
Knowledge is everything in counterterrorism. “Coöperators are the unsung heroes of this business,” Ahmad said. One of her former supervisors at E.D.N.Y., David Bitkower, told me, “You coöperate some kid from Minneapolis in 2009, and a couple of years later he’s going to help you prosecute an Al Shabaab commander, who is going to help you pursue defendants farther up the chain.” Ahmad considers all her time with ex-jihadists well spent. “They always know more than they think they know,” she told me. “Everything they remember helps fill in the picture.”
Trials are relatively easy, in Ahmad’s view: “There’s a neutral arbiter—a judge, a jury. You make your best argument, and they decide.” Getting an extraterritorial terrorism case charged, on the other hand, requires establishing facts to the satisfaction of an American grand jury about events that occurred, often years ago, in faraway places. For Ahmad’s cases, those places have included Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Nigeria, Niger, Kenya, Somalia, Trinidad, Guyana, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
But the hardest part of bringing a terrorism suspect onto American soil, she says, has usually been convincing the U.S. government that it’s safe. Special approval must be obtained both from Main Justice—as government lawyers call Justice Department headquarters, in Washington, D.C.—and from the National Security Council, in the White House. The political opposition to such transfers has been entrenched for years on Capitol Hill, and has only intensified since the attempt to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, on trial in Manhattan federal court. That effort failed, in 2010, in the face of objections from Congress and local officials.
In the Senate, the drive to oppose and defund civilian trials for accused terrorists has long been led by the Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. “This is no way to fight a war,” the three senators and a group of their colleagues wrote, in a 2015 letter to Eric Holder, then the Attorney General. The letter referred, specifically, to several extraditions that Ahmad was involved in. The senators and their allies strongly prefer that foreign terrorists who target Americans be detained in the military prison at Guantánamo Bay and, when possible, tried by a military tribunal. In 2009, Sessions, who is now the Attorney General, added an amendment to a military spending bill titled “No Miranda Warnings for Al Qaeda Terrorists.”
Ahmad and her colleagues have been working meanwhile to develop, with considerable quiet success, a criminal-justice alternative to Guantánamo. It’s a high-wire act. The public has unique expectations of law enforcement with respect to terrorism. “When there’s a bank robbery, we try to solve the crime,” Ahmad said. “But nobody thinks our job is to stamp out bank robbery. Terrorism is different. People expect us to prevent it.” Many terror cases are difficult to make, with the strongest evidence often classified or inadmissible. “And we can’t afford to lose,” Ahmad told me. “We can’t get anything wrong. If we lost a major extraterritorial case, there might never be another chance.”
Ahmad had a multifaceted upbringing. She grew up in suburban Nassau County, Long Island, with her father and stepmother and two younger brothers, and she also lived part time with her mother, in Manhattan. Her parents had divorced, amicably, when she was an infant, and, as Zainab grew, according to her father, Naeem, “she would play Mom off against Dad, but always for one thing—to buy more books.” Her parents were part of the Pakistani diaspora, and Zainab spent summers in Pakistan and England. Visits to Pakistan were an adventure—she had dashing, rowdy cousins—but England was often a shock. “You could feel the discrimination,” she told me. “My cousins, no matter how successful or well educated, were never going to be accepted as British. People would ask me where I was from. I’d say I was American. Then they’d say, ‘Yes, but where are you really from?’ I was always so glad to get home.”
“We felt comfortable here,” Naeem told me, when I visited him and his wife, Nasrin, at their home, in East Meadow. “I felt comfortable with my neighbors, and never told my children to avoid kids because they’re Christian, Jewish—none of that.” (Most of Zainab’s friends as a child were Jewish.) Naeem, a retired engineer, is an active member of a local mosque, and has taught Sunday school since the nineteen-eighties. “I am a very religious man,” he said. “But not a religiosity man. I don’t care what other people do.”
Naeem and his first wife, Jamile, left Pakistan for Canada in the nineteen-seventies—for economic reasons, he said. But his engineering degree, from the University of Peshawar, was not recognized in Canada, so he found work investigating insurance claims. In 1977, the couple moved to New York, where Zainab was born three years later. Naeem managed a restaurant in midtown and later helped run a construction firm. His boss, who eventually became his partner, was a Hindu from India. “We’re both from the Punjab,” Naeem said. “But if there was a war between India and Pakistan we didn’t bring it home. We were the same, except he went to temple and I went to mosque.”
Zainab’s parents describe her as a cheerful, precocious child. “She never walked, she always skipped,” Jamile, who now lives in Pakistan, told me. “Her sixth-grade teacher praised her respectfulness, and that meant a lot to me. A lot. It’s difficult to raise a respectful child in the U.S.” When Zainab was eight or nine, she and Naeem read the entire Quran together, which took about a year. She didn’t understand a word, she said. Later, as an undergraduate at Cornell, majoring in health policy, she studied Arabic. “We talked every night,” Naeem said. “She would give me the gist of the Arabic. I would send her back to class with new ideas and questions.” Even as a lawyer, he said, “she sometimes uses me as a bounce-off for ideas—to see what I say.”
Naeem served lunch and tea. A few days earlier—this was last spring—there had been a Trump campaign rally in Bethpage, a couple of miles to the east. “You could hear the roaring from here,” Naeem said. “Everything but the ‘_Build the wall! _’s.” Like his daughter, Naeem has a quick tongue and a ready laugh.
Nasrin, a tall, smiling woman in her fifties, is the town clerk of Hempstead, which has a population of eight hundred thousand. She is the first elected official of South Asian extraction in New York State. While we talked, white guys in pickups parked in the driveway and came to the front door, where they conferred with Nasrin over sheaves of documents—constituent service on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The American Dream lives on Long Island.
And yet I remembered Zainab saying, “If I were fifteen now, growing up where I did—I don’t know. Everything’s changed.” She meant the level of mistrust that Muslims in America face. “When I was a kid, even though I had a funny name, and didn’t look like everyone else, it honestly took me a very long time to realize that. There was nothing that made me feel different. Substitute teachers would come, and start to take attendance, and hesitate, because my name was at the top of the class list, Ahmad. They’d say, ‘I know I’m going to pronounce this wrong.’ And the whole class would be, like, ‘Zainab. Duh.’
“Every year, in elementary school, we’d have American Heritage Day. Everybody would say where their family was from. Germany. Poland. I remember, in second grade, saying, ‘My family’s from Pakistan.’ The teacher pulled down a map, and I didn’t know where Pakistan was, even though I’d been there. I was totally embarrassed. But then I was relieved because the teacher didn’t know, either.” Ahmad laughed. “I’d kind of like to go back to a time in America when teachers didn’t know where Pakistan is.”
Jamile told me, “When Zainab was little, she wanted to be a receptionist. She loved answering the phone. Then she wanted to be a nurse. I mentioned lawyer, because my dad was a lawyer, but I wasn’t serious.” Ahmad herself is vague about how law happened. She had planned to be a hospital administrator, but things went sideways after the September 11th attacks, and she ended up at Columbia Law School, on a full scholarship. One judge she clerked for, Reena Raggi, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, recalls her strong academic background in finance and economics. “She excelled in a variety of areas,” Raggi told me. “Her ability to analogize. Her aptitude for solving problems. She has a deep critical mind. Zainab doesn’t come across as a hardboiled, aggressive prosecutor. She’s reserved—that’s her upbringing. She would have been successful in any field. But, I must admit, I didn’t see this coming.”
Naeem once got a call from his daughter while she was clerking for U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein. It was 2006, at the end of a major Mafia trial. “Zainab was crying,” he said. “The defendant had been convicted. She said, ‘I couldn’t take it when he took off his watch and his necklace and gave them to his family.’ She had got to know these people. So I said, ‘Which side would you rather be on, the government or the defense? You’re not after the person, you’re after the truth.’ ”
When Ahmad joined the Eastern District, in 2008, she first worked on Brooklyn and Staten Island gang cases, but soon found herself drafted into a terrorism investigation that centered on a plot to blow up fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The plotters, one of them a former baggage handler, were a motley quartet from Guyana and Trinidad, and the case led to both Iran and Al Qaeda. “You start following a disgruntled baggage handler, a guy who’s mouthing off in Queens,” Ahmad said. “But he has the potential to connect with serious networks—and this guy did it.” Russell Defreitas, the baggage handler, made trips to Guyana, looking to contact a senior Al Qaeda leader. When his search failed, he settled instead for Abdul Kadir, a chemical engineer and former member of Guyana’s parliament, who had transferred his allegiance to Islamist extremists in Iran. The investigators moved carefully, placing an informant with Defreitas, but not, at first, asking him to gather evidence with a tape recorder. “We weren’t sure about Guyana law, or the Guyanese, and you don’t want to blow your informant,” Ahmad said. “We’re not the intelligence community. We’re law enforcement. We have to declare we’re there. You have to figure out who you can trust. Eventually, we worked it out, and we got him recorded.”
Marshall Miller, the lead prosecutor on the case, was struck by how Ahmad took to the work. “Zainab was really good in Guyana with local law enforcement,” he told me. “She made them feel respected. Ninety per cent of prosecutors, that doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to get shit done. But the best prosecutors are born diplomats, particularly in this field. You need to be able to relate to people from all over the world.”
Miller’s team discovered links between Kadir and Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian diplomat believed to be the mastermind of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Kadir, they determined, was planning to engage the Iranian military and special forces in his plot. When he tried to fly to Iran, they abruptly halted the investigation and had the plotters arrested. “We had to take it down,” Ahmad said. “If this were all happening in the U.S., you could afford to let it go and roll up more people. They didn’t have explosives yet. But if he goes to Iran he goes totally dark. He already had the J.F.K. plans. We couldn’t let him get away.”
At the trial of Kadir and Defreitas, in 2010, Miller assigned Ahmad to make the closing argument. She knew the case thoroughly, and had shown poise and fluency in court. In the summation, she gave a bracing description of the plotters’ intent: “Their goal was to destroy the economy of the United States. They knew that accomplishing that goal would take lives, and they didn’t care. In their view, the innocent lives lost would be mere collateral damage.”
Defreitas had testified that his tape-recorded plans to cause devastation were just empty talk. “Ladies and gentlemen, that is ridiculous,” Ahmad said. “It’s not like you find your kid brother borrowed your car and crashed it and you yell, ‘I’m going to kill you!’ Everybody realizes you are not actually going to kill your brother. You’re just blowing off steam in the heat of the moment. That is not what we’re dealing with here. . . . Russell Defreitas is doing everything he can to make his nightmare a reality.” The jury deliberated for five days. Then they convicted Defreitas and Kadir on multiple counts of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Both men were sentenced to life in prison.
There are ninety-three U.S. Attorney’s offices. Of these, fewer than half a dozen are in a position to pursue extraterritorial cases. Terrorism is only one area of transnational crime, but it is easily the most high-profile. In recent years, E.D.N.Y. has in some ways overtaken its traditional rival, the Southern District, which is based in Manhattan. “Competition with S.D.N.Y. makes you kind of entrepreneurial,” Marshall Miller told me. “We’re like the scrappy little brother. Immediately after 9/11, we had, I think, zero terrorism cases. The goal was to change the program. You gotta go out there and make friends with all the agents and legats. S.D.N.Y. was haughty. They let you know they’re the best. We tried to be the guy you wanted to go out for a drink with. Friendly.” Experienced agents noted the hustle. Tara Bloesch, an F.B.I. special agent, who has completed several tours in Pakistan and is now based in Philadelphia, told me, “If there’s a way to legally establish venue, the E.D.N.Y. will do it. Maybe it’s just the airport that returning fighters land in—anything.”
When the F.B.I. has a promising investigation, it becomes like a client shopping for a lawyer. Which U.S. Attorney’s office would be most effective on this case? As Ahmad began travelling in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, and began winning significant convictions, her stock at the F.B.I. rose. Judge Margo Brodie, of the Eastern District, who was formerly the deputy chief of the Criminal Division at E.D.N.Y., told me, “Agents were bringing their cases to the office, begging to have her take them. It never dawned on her that the reason she had so much work was that she’s so good.”
Bloesch worked closely with Ahmad on a gruelling 2015 trial, providing information about events in Pakistan. “I’ve never seen anybody work that many hours,” she said. “Everybody else kind of falls in line. We worked Saturdays, Sundays.” Celia Cohen, one of Ahmad’s co-counsels on that case, lives in New Jersey and has two young children, but she moved into Ahmad’s apartment in Manhattan for three weeks during the trial. “We hardly slept,” Cohen told me. “It was like college. We just discussed the case till we crashed and woke up with new ideas.”
Building an extraterritorial terrorism case typically requires permission from foreign governments to conduct investigations in their domains, and then assistance in apprehending suspects and transferring them to American custody. This process can involve a great many sign-offs—delicate, overlapping negotiations prone to being buffeted by political and bureaucratic winds.
When Ahmad revived the case of William Bultemeier’s murder, in West Africa, David Bitkower, her supervisor, had doubts. “That region is not a five-star destination at the best of times, and this was not the best of times,” he said. “Al Qaeda had just taken over the northern part of Mali. Zainab was bound and determined, though. It was a righteous case.” In Niger, she interviewed police officers who had dealt with Cheibani, and the owner of a garage where he had left his truck on the night of the murder. She found another eyewitness, a one-legged beggar called Toto, who was still working outside La Cloche, the restaurant where Bultemeier had eaten his last meal. The original eyewitness, the security guard, had long vanished and was presumed dead. Ahmad found him, too. “He was petrified,” she said, but ultimately agreed to testify. For that, Ahmad gave credit to her case agent, John Ross, a former New York City police officer: “Ross has incredible people skills.”
Ahmad and Ross went next to Algeria, looking for a woman who had been engaged to a Cheibani associate. Her house in Niger had been searched in the initial investigation. “Maybe we can put Cheibani in Niger,” Ahmad said. “That would be huge. Because we’ve only put him in the truck.” The woman and her daughter were a prostitute team, now living in the southern Algerian city of Adrar. “We got a lot of pushback from the Embassy on that trip,” Ahmad said. “I felt strongly that we should go, and not ask for the witnesses to come to Algiers. We’re the supplicants here.” The daughter turned out to be helpful, and Ahmad put her on the list of witnesses to be flown to Brooklyn. “But the interview process was so cumbersome there, so formal. We had to take an Algerian judge with us to her house. The defense attorneys don’t have to do that.”
But, in the view of Joshua Dratel, a New York attorney who has represented a number of high-profile terrorism defendants, it’s the government that actually enjoys an advantage in evidence-gathering. “Foreign governments won’t coöperate with us,” he said. “Foreign witnesses even won’t coöperate with us. They’re afraid that we’re really U.S. agents, or that they’ll get in trouble if they talk to us.”
Ahmad, who really is a U.S. agent, says that she also struggles to cultivate foreign witnesses. “We can’t just go knock on doors in Niger. Defense attorneys can. I need permission from the Embassy, the State Department, the Niger government. We’re a government engaged in sovereign relations with a foreign government, and in deference to them.”
Ahmad pursued the Cheibani case because, she said, it seemed both important and feasible. “It’s all triage,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going around West Africa trying to charge everybody who supports A.Q.I.M. or Boko Haram. This was the murder of an American diplomat. I remember an official in Niger saying, ‘I really hope my country will do what you’re doing if something happens to me.’ ”
Cheibani’s home town of Gao was out of reach; it lay in the part of northern Mali that was being held by Al Qaeda and its affiliates. “The A.Q.I.M. flag was flying over Gao,” Ahmad said. But the Gao policemen who had originally arrested Cheibani had fled south, and she found them outside the capital, Bamako. They told her that Cheibani had spoken freely about his crime, and that they had found parts of Bultemeier’s vehicle—a bumper, a luggage rack—in a search of his house. She felt ready to charge.
Ahmad arranged for the policemen to come to Brooklyn and appear before a federal grand jury, and in June, 2013, the jury returned a sealed indictment. A few months later, when the French Army reported capturing Cheibani, Ahmad was uncertain that it was really him. The Sahara is a big place. But, she said, “We had his biometrics, from his Bamako arrest. Turned out it was him.” The French handed Cheibani to the Malians. As Ahmad worked toward an extradition, her diplomatic skills were at full stretch. Cheibani’s criminal networks were formidable, and any of the governments involved—France, Mali, and Niger—could have halted the process at any time. Finally, she told me, the Malians said, “Yes, come and get him.” Ahmad exhaled, shaking her head. F.B.I. agents retrieved Cheibani. “They Mirandized him on the plane,” she said. “I first saw him at his arraignment. He looked much older than his photos, like he’d led a hard life. It was one of the most moving moments I’ve felt doing this work.”
I had heard from several people that Ahmad has a great rapport with juries. When I asked her about it, she seemed embarrassed. We were back at the Cadman Plaza diner—which, I’d learned, Brooklyn prosecutors call the Perp Diner. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I feel comfortable with them. The mosque I went to as a kid was in Queens, and it drew people from all over Brooklyn, Long Island, the Bronx—cabdrivers, truck drivers, regular working-class people. My parents’ friends came from their mosque. When I look at these Brooklyn juries, I see the people I grew up around.”
Ahmad lives downtown, in an apartment that looks out on East Fourteenth Street. Her mother, Jamile, visits every summer. She’s an elegant woman, who had worked as a computer programmer at an insurance company in midtown for many years. She loves New York, and steps lightly through the swelter of an East Village sidewalk. “In Pakistan, we grow up street-smart,” she said. “In America, the children are so naïve. Zainab is naïve. Zainab would be shocked if I ever told a lie. ‘What?’ In Pakistan, kids would never be fazed. But I think that’s important—to irk your child. So I’m here.”
Ahmad was briefly married, to a lawyer from Jordan, but is now divorced. Though she lives alone, and travels constantly, she manages a busy, even glittering social life. “Zainab has a wider range of people she’s close to than the rest of us do,” a friend of hers, a freelance writer, told me. “She’ll throw a party at her place, and it’s cops, actors, journalists, filmmakers, doctors, businesspeople, Pakistani lawyers, academics. She doesn’t cook, but there’s always a ton of food. She’s the sort of person everybody wants to make food for. I first met her at a rooftop barbecue in the Village. It was dark, but it was like she was sunny—I can’t think of a better word for it. You see that light, and you want to get near it.”
After hours, Ahmad likes to sing karaoke at a joint on Avenue A. “She always sings lighthearted, feisty-girl songs,” her friend said. “I thought Taylor Swift was just trendy and beneath notice until I heard Zainab sing ‘Blank Space’ there with her cop friend Ed.” On cross-examination, Ahmad admitted that her signature karaoke tune is “Manic Monday,” as interpreted by the Bangles. Her youngest brother likes country music, so they belt out Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” on drives out to see the folks on Long Island. On road trips with her best friend from college, Shally Madan, who lives in California, Madonna, Rihanna, and the “Bend It Like Beckham” soundtrack see heavy rotation.
Ahmad seems barely to share her intensity (or much else) about her work with her nonwork friends. “She’s so offhand about it,” the freelance writer said. “She doesn’t let her work hang over her like a pall. Last year, she had just finished some very tricky case. Then we went out and sang karaoke.”
There is, of course, much about her work that Ahmad can’t discuss with anyone lacking the relevant security clearance. When I asked her, at the Perp Diner, about how an American prosecutor “coöperates” a jihadist, she drummed her fingers, shook her head, and finally came up empty. “Everybody I’ve flipped is still under seal.”
On certain mornings, when she’s in town, her workday starts with a walk across town to Chelsea, where the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force has its headquarters. One floor of the building is a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, a secure area that blocks surveillance. Ahmad leaves her phone outside. Inside, she can speak freely about cases by teleconference with intelligence operatives, diplomats, and military officers with top-secret clearance all over the world.
In combatting terrorism, Ahmad says, there is no conflict between the military and the civilian criminal-justice system. She works closely with the Pentagon, and defers to the military where it has jurisdiction. In one case, she was pursuing an Iraqi-Canadian charged in the murder of five American soldiers, killed by suicide bombers whom he had helped travel from Tunisia to join Al Qaeda in Iraq. The man was living in Edmonton, and Canada, like most countries, will not consider an extradition request from the U.S. military as long as Guantánamo remains open. To persuade the Canadians, she had to gather evidence in Iraq, which was then unstable enough that Ahmad and an F.B.I. colleague had to take cover from daily rocket attacks. As Ahmad investigated, she was transported in military helicopters. In Mosul, she stayed on a U.S. military base, and soldiers brought witnesses to the perimeter for interviews. “I think military investigators often see us as finishers,” she told me. “They may have a lot of evidence on somebody. We’ve got the machinery, and the credibility, to charge and try that person.” After four years, she persuaded Canada to extradite the man.
Some of the indictments that Ahmad has obtained remain sealed, usually because the suspect is still at large, and I suspect—Ahmad says she disagrees—that this can produce conflicts of interest, if, say, the Pentagon and the C.I.A. are trying to kill the same individuals she is trying to haul into court. This seems to have been the case with Mohanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, a Texan who became a high-ranking Al Qaeda leader. The Justice Department wanted to prosecute him, but the Pentagon and the C.I.A. reportedly wanted to put him on a kill list, arguing that he could not be captured. As it turned out, Farekh was captured by Pakistani forces in 2014 and handed over to the U.S., where Ahmad charged him, under seal, the following year. He now awaits trial in Brooklyn.
For Ahmad, the more complex collaboration is with U.S. intelligence agencies. Spies and prosecutors investigating terrorists are often after the same information, but spooks cannot, for obvious reasons, be called as witnesses. “We discovered, as terrorism cases ramped up, that we needed to put in a second informant,” Marshall Miller told me. “We had to have one who could testify in court.” If Ahmad uses evidence gathered by intelligence agencies in a public trial, she risks revealing sources and classified data. Prosecutors are obliged to ask permission to use this evidence, and, as with extraditions, these are not negotiations that can be conducted by e-mail. “You have to go there, whether it’s to Langley or Nigeria, and meet with people, explain what you want, gain their trust,” she said.
Any exculpatory evidence must be disclosed to the defense, though attorneys need security clearances to see classified information. “They’re usually disappointed,” Ahmad said. “They want to know where the real Super Secret Squirrel stuff is. But there is no real Super Secret Squirrel stuff. We wish.”
Joshua Dratel, the New York attorney, says that, in counterterrorism cases, the government’s control of information gives it another advantage. “By making juries anonymous, we’re telling jurors that the defendant is really dangerous,” he said. “I’ve had the government put an anonymousexpert on the stand. The standard of probable cause for surveillance is diluted in national-security cases. They don’t even need a warrant for overseas wiretaps. In the past decade, we see much less classified information, and we have to get a lot of it through the judge, who knows nothing about the case.”
“We were a bit desperate before Zainab showed up here,” Mark Smith, the head of covert policing for the Greater Manchester Police, said. British intelligence had caught wind of an Al Qaeda operation in 2008. About a dozen men from Pakistan had entered the country on student visas, registered for classes, and immediately quit school. Surveillance showed them to be scouting a range of public venues, eventually concentrating on the Arndale Centre, a large shopping mall in Manchester that, in 1996, was the target of an I.R.A. truck bomb that devastated much of the city’s retail district. Abid Naseer, a graduate student from Peshawar, with a B.A. in English literature, began to regularly e-mail an Al Qaeda handler in Pakistan. He wrote that he was planning to get married soon, but in his daily rounds there was no sign of a fiancée, or of marriage preparations. This was a code that the Brits had seen before. The wedding day would be the attack day.
“We devoted all of our counterterrorism resources to this surveillance,” Smith, who was then leading the region’s terror-investigation force, told me. “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.”
Law enforcement pounced too soon, though. From the intercepted e-mails, and from quantities of flour and oil found in Naseer’s flat—Al Qaeda teaches operatives how to build bombs starting with flour and oil—the authorities inferred that the group had planned to make bombs with chemical detonators and an organic charge, similar to those used by the bombers who struck three Tube trains and a London bus in 2005, killing fifty-two. But no bomb-making chemicals were found, and the British press grew increasingly dubious. The government, hoping to make the whole thing go away (the exchange-student business in Britain is large and lucrative, Smith pointed out), decided to deport the suspects rather than prosecute. The detectives on the case were horrified when they heard the news, at the prosecutor’s office. “I couldn’t accept it,” Smith told me. “They nearly called security to remove us.”
Naseer fought his deportation, arguing that a return to Pakistan would be unacceptably dangerous, and he won the right to stay. But by then the Americans had become interested in his case, particularly after British intelligence alerted the F.B.I. that the e-mail account that Naseer had been reporting to—the Al Qaeda handler in Pakistan, e-mailing as email@example.com—had started receiving e-mails again, this time from a jihadist in the United States who was asking for bomb-making instructions. “I nearly crashed the car when I heard that,” Smith told me. Ahmad said, “It was really bad op sec”—operational security—“on Al Qaeda’s part, to use the same Yahoo address. I mean, come on.” The U.S. plotters were arrested. Ahmad headed to Manchester.
“When Zainab walked in the room, we said, ‘Crikey, she looks awfully young. Is this a junior sent here to fact-find?’ ” Smith said. “Within a few minutes, though, it was, like, ‘Whoa, she knows what she’s doing.’ There was no comparison with U.K. prosecutors. Zainab stayed four days with us on that first visit, and left us a big list of evidence she wanted, and exactly how she wanted it packaged up.”
Ahmad’s goal was to demonstrate that Naseer’s plot was part of an international conspiracy, allegedly organized by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, to bomb targets in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the United States. The would-be U.S. bombers were three young men who had been classmates at Flushing High School, in Queens, and then, in 2008, travelled together to Pakistan to join the Taliban. They ended up instead with Al Qaeda, from whom they received military training and, ultimately, orders to return home and carry out suicide bombings. They were of more use to the cause, they were told, using their local knowledge to attack New York City than they were in Muslim lands. After considering Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, and other landmarks, they settled on bombing subway trains at rush hour. By now, the authorities were monitoring their phones, however, and reading their e-mails to Al Qaeda, which used much of the same code that Naseer had used, including an upcoming “wedding.”
One of the U.S. plotters, Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American, was working as an airport-shuttle driver in Denver. Following instructions that he had e-mailed to himself from Pakistan, he bought hydrogen peroxide and acetone from local beauty-supply outlets, rented a hotel suite in nearby Aurora, and used the kitchen to cook up triacetone triperoxide, a detonator explosive similar to that used in the London attacks. He tested the mixture in the hotel parking lot. It exploded, as he had hoped. Zazi packed the detonator explosives in a rental car and drove to New York.
As he crossed the George Washington Bridge, police stopped him, at the request of the F.B.I., but they failed to find the jar of explosives in the car. Zazi was spooked. Then his rental car got towed in Queens, with his computer, containing all the bomb-making instructions and incriminating e-mails, inside. Zazi flushed the explosives down a toilet and flew back to Colorado, where he was arrested almost immediately. His accomplices were detained a few months later, and, in 2010, Zazi pleaded guilty to multiple terrorism violations; one accomplice, Zarein Ahmedzay, also pleaded guilty. Zazi and Ahmedzay are still awaiting sentencing, as their coöperation with law enforcement continues to be useful. (The third member of their plot, Adis Medunjanin, a Bosnian-American, pleaded not guilty. He was convicted, in 2012, in Brooklyn federal court, and sentenced to life in prison.)
Abid Naseer fought extradition from the U.K. but lost, arriving in Brooklyn in early 2013. Ahmad, preparing to try him, debriefed Zazi and Ahmedzay at length. They had been in Peshawar in November, 2008, when Naseer was also there. The same Al Qaeda “external-operations” team that tasked Zazi and his friends with a martyrdom operation had commanded Naseer. Ahmad planned to call Zazi and Ahmedzay as witnesses. They could fill in the picture of Al Qaeda’s training operation in Pakistan from the inside.
Admit it. Sometimes, your Twitter life is messy. You follow hundreds of people — maybe thousands. Staring at your timeline is about as intelligible as reading a stock ticker.
How do you bring organization to your Twitter life? How do you rise above the confusion, cut through the complexity, and become a superstar on Twitter?
You learn these 14 Twitter hacks.
Once you pick up on these power user features, you’ll become a Twitter pro in no time.
Exclusive Resource:Get a free, 30-page ebook of Twitter Tips!
1. Create a follow list.
Want to turn your Twitter feed into a streamlined and swift way of accessing only the information you want? This hack is for you.
Create a follow list.
According to Twitter, “A list is a curated group of Twitter users. You can create your own lists or subscribe to lists created by others. Viewing a list timeline will show you a stream of Tweets from only the users on that list.”
Click on your profile → “More” → “Lists.” Or, just type in “g” and “l.” Then click “Create new list.”
Type in a name for your list and a brief description. Set the privacy settings, save the list, and you’re done.
To survey your newly-minted list feed, go to your profile page and click on “Lists.”
Add Twitter users to your list by clicking on the gear icon next to the Follow button on any user’s account. You don’t have to be following the user to add them to a list.
Choose “Add or remove from lists…” and check the list you want. Done!
2. Find out what lists you’re on
To gauge your popularity level, you can find out what public lists you’ve been added to. From your lists page, click on “Member of.”
Knowing what lists you’re on gives you an idea of how you’re perceived on Twitter. Are you in a lot of “SEO” lists or “digital marketer” lists?
3. Use hashtags
The more you use hashtags, the more engagement you’ll get on your tweets. Tweets with hashtags are proven to double engagement rate, grow more followers, improve reputation, and gain information.
Check out my infographic on the power of hashtags.
4. Tweet when your followers are online
Instead of a universal best time to tweet, it’s more likely that every brand has its own set of best times to tweet.
Try tweeting when your followers are most active as they would more likely see your tweets.
You can find out your followers’ activity with Twitter tools like Followerwonk and Tweriod.
5. Use search operators
Twitter’s search bar looks humble and unassuming, yet it possesses an incredible amount of power. You can unleash this power using Search Operators.
6. Use Advanced Search
Twitter’s advanced search is just that — advanced. With the exabytes of information being churned out by tweeters every day, there is a ton of great information available for the searching.
Advanced Search is the way to find it.
If you’re not yet adept at using the amazing buffet of search operators, you can use the advanced search to stitch together a precise and targeted search.
Here are some of the features of Advanced Search:
- Search based on a set of given words
- Search for an exact phrase
- Search for any of several given words
- Search for something that contains none of the given words
- Search hashtags
- Search based on any of Twitter’s dozens of supported languages
- Search for people from certain accounts
- Search for people tweeting to certain accounts
- Search for people mentioning certain accounts
- Search for tweets sent near a specified location
- Search for tweets occurring within a certain date frame
- Search for positive tweets
- Search for negative tweets
- Search for questioning tweets – ?
- Search for retweets
- Search for any combination of all those things
I think you’ll agree that’s quite the level of complexity. Let your searches begin.
7. See what has access
As you integrate your Twitter life with all the other aspects of your online life, there may be tons of apps that have access to your account.
Now and then, it helps to check out what applications are accessing your Twitter account. From your profile settings, go to “Apps.”
You may want to clean some stuff up by clicking “revoke access.”
8. Put hashtags in your bio
If you put hashtags in your bio, people will be able to find you better when they perform searches.
9. Eliminate emails
Don’t like getting tons of emails from Twitter? Turn them all off with a single click.
Go to your profile, then email notifications. Look for the “turn off” button at the top.
10. Be a Twitter texter
You love Twitter. You’ll love texting using Twitter. Just go to your mobile tab, and turn on Twitter text messaging.
11. Tell Twitter to get some sleep
If you are an inveterate tweeter and losing precious shut-eye because of your addiction, it’s time to impose some limits.
Click on “mobile.” Assuming you’ve added your phone, select the times that you ought to be sleeping, and keep twitter shushed up through the night.
12. Catalog your life’s tweet record
Are you into personal improvement, life tracking, and writing your own bio?
Twitter has a hack for that. Click the gear icon, then “Settings.” Go to the bottom and click “Request your archive.” You’ll get an email when it’s ready.
13. Subscribe to public lists
To join someone else’s public list, go to their profile and click “lists.” Choose what list of theirs you’d like to subscribe to, and click “Subscribe.” Joining lists does two sweet things:
- Gives you awesome theme-specific feed information
- Gets you exposure, especially if you’re wanting more visibility by the radar of list owners and participants.
Hint: You can follow a user’s public list without even following that user.
14. Use Twitter keyboard shortcuts, hacker style
Type ? in Twitter, and view all the most important keyboard shortcuts. Here’s what you’ll see.
G stands for go. Most keyboard shortcuts use “g” plus another key. Here’s your comprehensive list of Twitter keyboard shortcuts:
- g then h – go to the home page
- n – new tweet
- l – like
- r – reply
- t – retweet
- m – direct message
- u – mute user
- b – block user
- enter – open tweet details
- o – expand photo
- | – close all open tweets
- / – search
- CMD + enter – send tweet
- j – go to next tweet
- k – go to the previous tweet
- space – page down (browser default)
- shift + space – page up (browser default)
- . – load new tweets
- g then n – notifications
- g then r – mentions
- g then p – profile
- g then l – likes
- g then i – lists
- g then m – messages
- g then s – settings
- g then u – go to user…
Learning Twitter is like anything else in life. The more you use it, and the more you learn, the better you’ll get. These hacks will help get you there faster.
What other expert Twitter tips can you share?
Image credits: Markus Spiske