Zainab Ahmad is one of America’s top counterterrorism prosecutors, specialising in extra-territorial cases, trying bad characters not present in the United States or gathering evidence related to crimes committed in far off lands to present before juries here.
Ahmad, 37, was born in New York to immigrant parents from Pakistan, that international slouch on counterterrorism that could not have done more to sully its record on the issue.
It was her dogged pursuit over years and across time-zones that forced Alhassane Ould Mohamed, a Malian also known as Cheibani, to plead guilty in 2016 to murdering an American diplomat in Niger in 2000. She had 18 witnesses flown in to the US from Niger and Mali.
In November 2015, a New York jury agreed with Ahmad to convict a Pakistani man, Abid Naseer, who had been arrested in a connection with an al-Qaeda plot in Britain.
“We were a bit desperate before Zainab showed up here,” a British police officer told The New Yorker. “When Zainab walked in the room, we said, ‘Crikey, she looks awfully young. Is this a junior sent here to fact-find?’
“Within a few minutes, though, it was, like, ‘Whoa, she knows what she’s doing.’ There was no comparison with UK 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.”
She has fought 13 such cases and is yet to lose a case.
Her stellar reputation among prosecutors at the Eastern District of New York was bound to attract the attention of Washington. And when her boss Loretta Lynch took over as the attorney general, she sent for Ahmad to the head office.
She has returned to the Eastern District after the new team of President Donald Trump and attorney general Jeff Sessions took over, back to wrestling with extraterritorial counterterrorism.
But the country has changed too, Ahmad told The New Yorker. “If I were fifteen now, growing up where I did—I don’t know. Everything’s changed,” meaning the level of mistrust that Muslims in America face, according to the magazine.
And about Pakistan, she said growing up she couldn’t find it on the map when asked at school. She would be embarrassed, but felt better because even teachers couldn’t.
But now, Pakistan is closely identified with terrorism in American public memory, especially since May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in his hideout in Abbottabad.
“I’d kind of like to go back to a time in America when teachers didn’t know where Pakistan is,” Ahmad said.