Vocal Cleric Arrested in London at U.S. Behest
By Craig Whitlock and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page A01
BERLIN, May 27 -- A Muslim cleric whose London mosque has served as a magnet and megaphone for Islamic militants was arrested early Thursday by British police after U.S. officials unsealed a federal indictment charging him with planning terrorist acts in Oregon, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Abu Hamza Masri, 47, was detained at about 3 a.m. by an anti-terrorist squad that searched his home, acting in response to a U.S. extradition request. Among other crimes, he is accused of planning a military training camp for Muslim jihadists in rural Oregon and orchestrating a plot to take 16 Western tourists hostage in Yemen in 1998.
The U.S. indictment was handed up by a federal grand jury in New York on April 19 but kept under seal until Masri's arrest in London, where for years he has fended off attempts by the British government to silence him and expel him from the country.
The cleric has denied any wrongdoing or involvement with terrorism.
A native Egyptian who became a British citizen in 1981, Masri was born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa and at one point worked as a nightclub bouncer. He is one of the most visible and vocal Muslim radicals in Europe.
Missing both hands and one eye -- the result of injuries he said he suffered while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan -- the imam has regularly praised the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and blamed Jews for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
British authorities have long suspected him of recruiting radicals such as Richard Reid, a British citizen convicted of trying to blow up an American Airlines flight in 2001. But until now he has remained free to preach his radical brand of Islam in public.
Last year, Britain declared Masri a national security threat and moved to strip him of his citizenship, a move that could eventually allow authorities to deport him or jail him indefinitely under anti-terrorism laws. Officials also shuttered his Finsbury Park mosque. But Masri has not gone quietly. He has tied up the legal proceedings with appeals and resorted to preaching on the street outside the mosque.
His attorney, Maddrassar Arani, said she spoke with him briefly Thursday after he was taken into custody and that he seemed unfazed. "He was quite calm about it," she told BBC Radio. "He said, 'Take your time and come down whenever you can.' "
Masri appeared briefly in a London court Thursday. Asked if he was willing to go to the United States, he shook his head and said, "No," the Reuters news agency reported. He was ordered detained pending another hearing next Thursday.
The Masri indictment was announced in New York by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. "The war against terrorism is being fought on many fronts," he told reporters. "It is a war where innocent lives are endangered, not only by the terrorist who carries the bomb, but by those who recruit and equip the terrorists."
Under federal law, Masri would be eligible for the death penalty if convicted of the hostage-taking charges, Ashcroft noted. However, Britain has no death penalty and, as a matter of policy, refuses to extradite suspects to countries where they might face it. U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.S. side would probably agree to waive the death sentence in extradition negotiations, which have already begun.
Masri is "the real deal," Raymond Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, said at a news conference. "Think of him as a freelance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide." Masri is alleged to have raised money at a New York mosque.
But other terrorism experts said that Masri by himself presented only a limited security threat, with his harsh rhetoric serving more as a public irritant for government officials in the United States and Britain. At the same time, they noted that his Finsbury Park mosque had played an important role in radical Islamic circles, attracting and encouraging militants such as Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the French citizen charged by U.S. prosecutors with conspiring with al Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company