Ahmad’s summation was three and a half hours long. She remembers looking at her notes only once. James McGovern, who was the chief of the Eastern District’s Criminal Division until last year, told me, “It was the summation of a lifetime.” Ahmad had called former Al Qaeda operatives; British secret agents; experts in explosives, computer forensics, Arabic, Pashto, and Al Qaeda’s structure; the F.B.I. agent who secured the bin Laden documents; even a Norwegian detective who could link, through shared e-mail accounts, the Manchester plot with a plot to bomb a Copenhagen newspaper office. Ahmad’s ability to connect with the jury was critical. “You want to project: I am the most reasonable person in the room,” McGovern said. “Zainab excels at that. Jurors believe that they would see eye to eye with her about things. People want to say, ‘That really impressive person, I want to be in agreement with that person.’ ” Ahmad’s proposition about Naseer was simple, in the end: “This man wanted to drive a car bomb into a crowded shopping center and watch people die.” After one day of deliberation, the jury agreed. Naseer was convicted on all counts and, in November, 2015, he was sentenced to forty years.
I submit Ms. Ahmad as a hero for several reasons. Obviously, for prosecuting terrorists, the criminals we fear the most. This is tough work, requiring a lot of travel, a lot of cross-cultural knowledge. But also for doing it in regular courts, proving that the regular U.S. court system is capable of rendering substantial justice even in cases where sensitive issues of national security come up. And, for doing it all at a very high level of skill (she hasn’t lost a jury trial yet) and a relatively young age (the article indicates she’s 37 years old) And maybe most of all, for being able to leave it at the office when the day is done:
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.”
The last few paragraphs of the profile, her thoughts about what happens if a jury were to return a not guilty verdict in one of her cases, are particularly worthy of consideration.
Maybe a hero is someone whose conduct and actions are an example the rest of us should aspire to follow. Or, maybe a hero is someone whose deeds make a difference, who changes things for the better. By either definition, Zainab Ahmad is a hero.