American Al Qaeda suspect 'plotted attacks against the West'

Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, 31, who was born in Houston, is on trial in New York after he was detained by security forces in Pakistan in 2014

An American citizen rose through the ranks of Al Qaeda to become head of its external operations wing, charged with planning attacks on the West, according to the testimony of a captured terrorist.

Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, 31, who was born in Houston and raised in Dubai, was detained by security forces in Pakistan in 2014.

He is now on trial in New York where he has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to murder American nationals, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and a string of other crimes.

In a video shown to the jury, a former Al Qaeda operative held at a secret location in the Middle East said a man named Abdullah Al Shami, which prosecutors allege is a pseudonym for Farekh - took over the role of head of external operations when Abdul Hafeez Al Somali died in an airstrike.

In the testimony, Sufwan Murad, 39, described how he travelled to Pakistan’s tribal area to join Al Qaeda in 2007. He eventually took on a role with the organisation’s family wing, helping distribute cash to members with dependents.

Among them was Abdul Hafeez, the then head of external operations.

Richard Tucker, for the prosecution, asked: “Based on your knowledge, where did that external operations section fall within the larger organisation of Al Qaeda.”

Mr Murad replied: “It was part of the military wing.”

Mr Tucker asked: “What was the mission of the external operations group?”

“External operations primarily targeted the West, America, Germany, and Europe, and the West in general,” said Mr Murad.

When Hafeez, also known as Saleh Al Somali, died in an airstrike, it was Shami who took over the role, added Mr Murad.

He was shown a photograph of the defendant, whom he then identified as Shami.

Most of the charges against Farekh relate to an attack on an American military facility in Afghanistan. On January 19, 2009, two vehicles loaded with explosives were driven by suicide bombers at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province.

The first was meant to breach the camp’s gate allowing the second vehicle, laden with more explosives, to devastate the base.

In the event, only the first bomb exploded, injuring several Afghans, including a pregnant woman. The second became stuck in the crater of the first. The driver was shot dead as he fled without detonating his deadly cargo.

The prosecution has presented evidence that Farekh’s fingerprints were found on tape used to construct the second bomb.

Reports in 2014 suggest his alleged role in Al Qaeda's external operations wing had brought him to the attention of senior American military figures who asked for him to be added to a kill list of suspects to be eliminated by drone strike, according to the The New York Times.

While the Pentagon and CIA lobbied the White House to authorise his killing, the department of justice urged caution, questioning whether he was a big enough player for the US government to justify assassinating an American overseas without trial.

Prosecutors allege that Farekh was radicalised while attending university in Manitoba, Canada. He left for Pakistan with two co-conspirators in 2007, according to their case.

In her opening statement in Brooklyn’s federal court, Saritha Komatireddy, assistant US attorney, said: “He turned his back on this country, joined terrorists, and lived with them for seven years until he was caught.”

He eventually arrived in New York to face charges in 2015.

His lawyers say the government case is based on testimony of captured Al Qaeda operatives who should not be trusted.

This week the jury also heard evidence from letters allegedly written by Farekh, in which he discussed living in Pakistan’s tribal areas under constant threat from drones and how he wanted to travel to Syria to join the fighting there.

The letters were recovered from an electronic storage device found in Afghanistan. A prosecution handwriting expert said the pen strokes matched that of the defendant.

In them, he describes life in North Waziristan and his difficulties communicating with the outside world.

“I am a little cut off from the world. I see almost nobody,” he apparently wrote in March 2013, at a time the prosecution alleges he had to adopt tight security measures for his own protection.

Two months later, another letter discusses the frustrations of a never ending war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban had no real need for foreign fighters beyond a symbolic amount.

“I really want to travel to Syria, seeing that the situation here is very confused,” he writes. “What I have been seeing in the last x amount of years is for brothers that are working are getting killed, and for those who are not doing anything then why on earth are they still here. (Just as extra info I am in the group that is doing absolutely nothing).”

All the way through his letters are peppered with complaints about not being able to go to the market and requests for recommendations of TV documentaries.

“I haven’t left my house in over six months and don’t feel safe to,” he writes.