Abid Naseer, 28, who was arrested in 2009 in Manchester, England, where he had been living on a student visa, was described by Brooklyn federal prosecutor Celia Cohen as a "key member" of a broad scheme to "take innocent lives" during a series of failed attacks at a Manchester shopping center, a newsroom in Copenhagen and the subways of New York.
Naseer, who is representing himself at trial, was flanked by a pair of U.S. Marshals as he delivered an opening statement. He called the charges false and said he went to Pakistan not to meet with al Qaeda operatives but to see his mother after she had bypass surgery.
Naseer was allegedly named in paperwork found in the walled and fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden,
the former leader of al Qaeda, was killed in 2011 by a group of U.S. forces, including Navy SEALs, according to Cohen.
One piece of evidence will be a letter in which bin Laden is updated on plans for the attacks in New York and Europe, Cohen told jurors.
Naseer is accused of providing and conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda and conspiracy to use a destructive device in relation to the British plot.
He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.
Cohen told jurors that evidence will show that Naseer received terrorist training in Pakistan and communicated with al Qaeda about the alleged plot using coded email messages under online addresses that appeared to belong to a female.
"The defendant was a key member in the conspiracy plot," Cohen said. "He planned a scheme to take innocent lives."
The bearded defendant, wearing a light yellow button-down shirt and black slacks, calmly told jurors during his opening that the charges against him were false. He concocted the email addresses to play pranks on friends and to meet women online, he said. His emails were innocent and not coded.
Naseer also said he was in Britain looking for a wife, not planning an attack. He told jurors that he has "no extremist or jihadi views" or affiliation with any terrorist network.
The first witness for the prosecution was Najibullah Zazi, who allegedly cooperated with Naseer and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. Also expected to testify is Zarein Ahmedzay.
According to the indictment and other court filings, al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan in 2008 recruited Zazi, Ahmedzay and another suspect to conduct a suicide bombing attack in New York.
The al Qaeda leaders communicated with Zazi about the plot through an al Qaeda facilitator named "Ahmad" in Peshawar, Pakistan. In early September 2009, Zazi, Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin allegedly selected the New York subway system as their target, and Zazi emailed with "Ahmad" in Pakistan about the proper ingredients for the main charge explosive, which included flour and oil, according to court papers.
Zazi pleaded guilty to his role in the plot in February 2010; Ahmedzay pleaded guilty in April 2010; and Medunjanin was convicted after trial in May 2012.
Naseer's 2009 arrest in England was part of a massive sweep in connection with an alleged plot to carry out bomb attacks in Britain.
He was extradited in January 2013.