-- 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.
"He was very vocal but also very skillful about staying within the boundaries of free speech. Otherwise he would have been arrested right away for incitement," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "He himself may not be an imminent threat, a clear and present danger, but he attracted these elements into an environment where jihad flourishes. . . . And it's always the guys who are in the background, who are less visible, who are more interesting from an intelligence point of view."
Legal experts cautioned that it could take months or years for the extradition process to play out and that it remains to be seen if Masri will ever face trial in the United States. He is also wanted in Yemen. Britain has refused to hand him over in part because Britain and Yemen do not have an extradition treaty.
Masri had predicted that the U.S. government would come after him.
That apparently reflected knowledge that U.S. prosecutors have been building a case against him for months. In February, they gained the cooperation of a key witness, James Ujaama, an American citizen who became a Masri confidant in the 1990s when he attended the Finsbury Park mosque.
Under a plea agreement, Ujaama admitted to illegally conspiring to provide goods to the former Taliban administration in Afghanistan. He admitted that he and a co-conspirator were sent by Masri to Afghanistan in 2000 for jihad training, and that he delivered currency "to persons in the territory of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban."
In September 2001, according to the plea agreement, Ujaama ferried money at the direction of a co-conspirator from London to Pakistan "with the intent of delivering it to persons in Afghanistan."
Prosecutors had also alleged that in 1999 Ujaama and Masri worked together to try to establish a terror training camp in Bly, Ore. Ujaama faxed Masri a document that compared property there to the terrain in Afghanistan and said it could be used as a place to hide weapons.
Ujaama, who is now in federal custody but could be freed as early as July under the terms of the plea agreement, did not admit to charges related to the alleged camp. Federal authorities say the camp was never established.
Masri has admitted knowing Ujaama but denied taking part in any terrorist conspiracy with him.
In the new indictment, U.S. prosecutors accused Masri of being part of a conspiracy to set up the Oregon camp. While Ujaama is not named in the indictment, the court papers refer to the fax about the Bly property. The indictment says that a co-conspirator communicated to Masri that he and others were stockpiling weapons and ammunition in the United States.
The indictment also alleges that in 2000, Masri helped raise an unspecified amount of money from his mosque in London and an unidentified mosque in New York to send recruits to a jihad training camp in Afghanistan and to provide support for al Qaeda leaders there.
It alleges that he raised about $10,000 to build a computer lab in Kandahar intended for the benefit of the Taliban.
The indictment also accuses Masri of giving support and directions to a militant group called the Islamic Army of Aden in December 1998 when it kidnapped 16 Western tourists, including 12 Britons and two Americans, in Yemen. According to the indictment, Masri provided a satellite phone to the group and received three calls in London the day before the hostages were taken. He also spoke to the group's leader while the kidnapping was underway and offered to serve as an intermediary, the indictment states.
A day later, the Yemeni military mounted a rescue operation that resulted in a gunfight and the deaths of four of the hostages.
Yemen has also sought Masri for his alleged role in a bomb plot around the same time. In that case, police arrested a carload of 10 radicals, including Masri's son, after discovering that they were carrying explosives and planning to attack a British consulate and two churches, according to Yemeni officials.
Yemen's leaders complained that Britain has thwarted their attempts to gain custody of Masri. Rashid Alimi, Yemen's interior minister, said in a telephone interview from Sanaa, the capital, that the government had provided British officials with a thick file documenting Masri's alleged role in the crime and was disturbed at the lack of cooperation.
In contrast, Alimi said, Yemen had worked closely with the United States in a joint bid to go after Masri. "We're very pleased and hoping he'll be extradited to the U.S.," Alimi said. "What is most important for us is that Abu Hamza receive justice, whether he is tried in Yemen or the U.S., as long as justice is done."
Schmidt reported from Washington.