Abu Hamza al-Masri, an Islamic cleric on trial in Manhattan on terrorism-related charges, denied helping al-Qaeda or taking part in the December 1998 abduction of tourists in Yemen, four of whom were killed.
Abu Hamza, who once delivered fiery sermons at Finsbury Park Mosque in London, today took the stand in federal court to answer prosecutors’ allegations he deployed followers for terrorist activities, including the hostage-taking, and tried to start a training camp for al-Qaeda in Oregon.
Josh Dratel, Abu Hamza’s lawyer, began with a rapid series of more than a dozen questions, including whether the cleric participated in the 1998 kidnapping of the tourists or provided material support to al-Qaeda or other extremist groups.
“Never,” Abu Hamza said in English.
“Did you ever aid and abet anyone to commit terrorist offenses?” Dratel asked.
“Never, as far as I know,” Abu Hamza responded.
Two American women testified during the trial they were among a group of tourists traveling in Yemen when their convoy was overtaken by a group of men armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades on a highway outside Aden. Prosecutors said the abductors were followers of Abu Hamza, who also provided them with a satellite phone used during the attacks.
Members of the tourist group were forced to stand in line atop a sand dune, acting as human shields, while their captors hunkered behind them and fired through their legs, according to the women’s testimony. The U.S. has said the kidnappers were involved in a shootout with Yemeni government forces who were attempting a rescue of the travelers.
Abu Hamza, 56, is charged with 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.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, Abu Hamza 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.
In explaining his philosophy, the cleric, who is blind in one eye and missing both his hands, told jurors he wouldn’t sacrifice the truth to avoid conviction. Wearing a light, blue T-shirt and dark pants, Abu Hamza spoke quietly, with a slight English accent.
“I’m no stranger to prison,” Abu Hamza said. “If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity and beliefs, then I don’t want it.”
Abu Hamza told jurors he emigrated from Egypt to the U.K. in 1979, landing his first job as a bouncer at London bars. He then managed a London strip club and later got a job as a civil engineer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, helping do construction projects on the grounds.
He said he was raised in a secular Muslim household, becoming religious only after marrying the first of three wives in the U.K., a Christian woman whose family was originally from Gibraltar.
“I was working in this kind of environment which wasn’t very respectful, you don’t have times for wives,” Abu Hamza said. “Friends were talking, they told her, ‘If you ask him to teach you Islam, he would spend more time with you.’ Then she started, ‘I want Islam,’” he said.
Abu Hamza said he initially resisted becoming more religious, saying, “I didn’t want to read it, I basically came to this country to pursue my dreams. It was too early. I would pursue it later, when I got older. That’s what you do later, the hajj,” or the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Earlier today, Mary Quin, a member of the tourist group, testified that while working on a book about the kidnapping in Yemen, she interviewed Abu Hamza in 2000 at the mosque, saying she believed he knew some of her abductors.
Prosecutors played a recording of Quin’s interview for the federal court jury, with Abu Hamza saying he spoke with the leader of the kidnappers on a satellite phone during the attack.
She asked him if he’d known about and condoned the attack, and he replied, “Islamically, it is a good thing to do.”
She asked him how the kidnappers had obtained a satellite phone and if he’d provided it, asking, “From you?”
“Yeah, perhaps,” he said.
During the interview, Abu Hamza told Quin he’d spoken to the gunmen during the kidnapping.
“I advised him not to be at the front, because him having a satellite phone in the target area means the government could do something undesirable,” Abu Hamza said.
During the meeting at the mosque, Abu Hamza told Quin that his son and stepson were both arrested in Yemen about the time the tourists were taken hostage, and that his group had warned Westerners not to travel to the country.
“If you knew what was going on in Yemen, you wouldn’t go,” Abu Hamza told Quin on the recording.
He also explained what the gunmen who abducted the group were hoping to accomplish, telling Quin they were going “to hold people for ransom until they government let my people go. We never thought it would be that bad.”
Paul Anthony Sykes, a manager for a U.K. phone company testified yesterday for the U.S. that Abu Hamza purchased a satellite phone from him in July 1998. Sykes described several telephone conversations he had with the defendant about how it worked. Abu Hamza bought satellite air-time in December 1998 and said he planned to export the telephone out of the country, Sykes testified.
The kidnappers told the tourists they were being taken hostage in response to U.S. and U.K. bombings in Iraq and that they hoped to win the release of some of their friends who had been arrested, Quin testified.
Abu Hamza resumes his testimony tomorrow.
The case is U.S. v. Mustafa, 04-cr-00356, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).