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Zainab Ahmad, the top prosecutor of international terrorists in the United States, sits at a crossroad of contradictions in American law and policy toward Muslims.
Ahmad, 37, is an Muslim-American attorney whose immigrant parents were born in Pakistan. If not for her credentials as a federal prosecutor, she could have been detained at the airport under President Trump's campaign against Muslims.
It is not the first twist in the road of her storied career. Despite challenges in the system, Ahmad has emerged as the prosecutor that terrorists fear.
In a New Yorker magazine profile, Ahmad is credited with a perfect record against international terrorists. That includes their acts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Nigeria, Niger, Kenya, Somalia, Trinidad, Guyana, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
In one case, Alhassane Ould Mohamed was charged in the murder of an American diplomat in Niger. Even after he escaped twice, Ahmad caught up with him.
In Brooklyn, where Ahmad practices, the defendant's lawyers floated a motion to get a preview of the prosecutor's evidence. It was not good news.
"They know Zainab's reputation," another prosecutor told the magazine. "They know their chances are not good."
When a U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed in Benghazi in 2012, Ahmad was on a conference call with American officials about how to proceed. But as she was building the case with agents, other Justice Department prosecutors were lobbying to assign the case to another office.
It was politics at work. Ahmad and the Brooklyn office were the acknowledged experts, but U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, Jr. and the Washington, D.C. office wanted the high-profile case.
"We all lost some cases to each other," Machen told the New York Times. Ahmed Abu Khattala, the defendant in the case, is awaiting trial.
In a different case that Ahmad won, a defendant was reportedly surprised to learn that a Muslim was prosecuting him. Abid Nasser, a Pakistani operative of al-Qaeda, was convicted of plotting an attack on a shopping center in the United Kingdom.
Ahmad said her religion and Pakistani connection were irrelevant to the case, but important to the community. She said Muslim-Americans reject the "distorted version of Islam that terrorist groups use to justify acts of mass violence."
"Many American-Muslims feel that it's their own culture and their own community that are being hijacked, which makes it a particularly important goal for them to hold accountable the perpetrators of terrorism," she said.
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