A U.S. woman told a New York jury weighing terrorism charges against a Muslim cleric how a Yemen vacation turned deadly after his followers allegedly took her group hostage, using them as a human shield during a firefight with government troops.
Margaret Thompson said yesterday she and her fellow travelers were returning to Aden after visiting the desert in December 1998 when their convoy was overtaken on a Yemeni highway by a group of men armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Islamic cleric, is on trial in federal court in Manhattan, accused of deploying followers for terrorist activities, including the hostage-taking, when he preached at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque.
The Yemen kidnappers, one of whom played with a live grenade, took five members of Thompson’s group away at gunpoint, singling out American citizens, she said. Thompson said she and the remaining hostages were ordered to stand in a line atop a sand dune. Their assailants, hunkered behind them, fired through their legs, using them as human shields, she said. The kidnappers engaged in a shoot-out with Yemeni government forces who’d come to rescue the victims, the U.S. said. Four of the 16 hostages were killed.
One of the kidnappers used a satellite phone while a second man, who spoke English, told Thompson and her colleagues, “It’s goodbye to you all,” before ordering them to stand atop the berm, she said.
“What did you think that meant?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Kim asked.
“I hoped it meant that they were getting ready to release us, but I feared it meant we were all going to die,” Thompson testified.
The U.S. says Abu Hamza provided the assailants with the satellite phone. He also attempted to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon, a prosecutor said.
Abu Hamza, 55, who is set to take the stand today after prosecutors rest their case, faces 11 counts, including conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists and other charges. The most serious charge, hostage-taking, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
During the trial, which began April 14, the government is seeking to use as evidence some of Abu Hamza’s sermons delivered at the Finsbury Park Mosque, which was attended by Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S., and Richard Reid, who was convicted in a foiled shoe-bomb plot on an airliner in December 2001.
Abu Hamza, born in Egypt as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, was granted British citizenship in 1986. He was convicted in the U.K. in 2006 of inciting followers to murder Jews and other non-Muslims in sermons he delivered at the mosque from 1997 to 2000. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The case is U.S. v. Mustafa, 04-cr-00356, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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