May 20 (Bloomberg) -- Abu Hamza al-Masri, a Muslim cleric who preached in the U.K. in the 1990s and last week proclaimed in court his admiration for Osama bin Laden, was convicted of supporting a deadly hostage standoff in Yemen and an aborted effort to start a terror training camp in Oregon.
Abu Hamza was found guilty yesterday in Manhattan federal court of 11 counts, including providing support for al-Qaeda, and may face life in prison. The former imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London was convicted in the U.K. in 2006 for inciting followers in sermons he gave from 1997 to 2000 to murder non-Muslims.
Yesterday’s conviction, the second U.S. terrorism trial victory for the U.S. in two months, “was not about the evidence but about a visceral reaction to the defendant,” said Joshua Dratel, a lawyer for the cleric, who is blind in one eye and missing both his hands. “It’s unfortunate that’s what happened and it’s what we feared.”
Howard Bailynson, the jury foreman, disagreed.
“I feel like he got a fair trial,” said Bailynson, who said jurors carefully reviewed the evidence during about 11 hours of deliberations.“There is no doubt in my mind about that.”
Abu Hamza was found guilty of taking part in a conspiracy in Yemen to take hostages and in aiding in the hostage-taking. His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 9. He was previously sentenced to seven years in prison in the U.K before before being extradited to face trial in New York.
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 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. Four of the 16 hostages were killed. The U.S. said the kidnappers were involved in a shootout with Yemeni government forces who were attempting a rescue.
Jurors determined quickly that Abu Hamza was guilty on the kidnapping charges based on phone records showing that he had purchased a satellite phone used by the kidnappers and that it was used to call him twice during the hostage-taking, Bailynson said in an interview. He said juries also relied on an interview recorded later in which Abu Hamza, referring to the assault, later told one of the victims, “We never thought it would be that bad.”
“Yemen was the beginning and fairly simple,” said Bailynson, a strategic programming director at Xerox Corp.
The jury rejected the argument made by defense lawyers that Abu Hamza was merely making speeches and hadn’t acted to promote terrorism, Bailynson said.
“Actions were clearly a part of it, he sent two people to Bly Oregon,” for the terror camp, Bailynson said.
“He’s a well-spoken orator,” Bailynson said. “There’s areas he embellished upon and there are elements that he contradicted the evidence established by the prosecution.”
Abu Hamza’s conviction follows wins by federal prosecutors in New York in other terrorism cases linked to al-Qaeda. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office was the first to investigate and indict bin Laden in mid-1998.
In March, bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, was found guilty of helping win recruits for the organization and acting as its spokesman after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two other alleged al-Qaeda followers are scheduled to go on trial in federal court in New York in November.
“It continues a trend of successful prosecutions of top terrorism suspects in our federal court system,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement today. “The debate over how to best seek justice in these cases is quietly being put to rest.”
The administration of President Barack Obama in 2011 had backed off a plan to try five terrorism suspects, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in New York City.
Hamza had testified he believed explosives detonated by the U.S. government brought down the World Trade Center towers, an assertion that caused jurors concern, according to Bailynson.
“His views on 9/11 were clearly disturbing,” Bailynson said. “I don’t think I would qualify him as likable.”
Abu Hamza, who was born in Egypt as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, denied aiding al-Qaeda and testified he trained as a civil engineer after immigrating to the U.K. He was granted British citizenship in 1986.
The mosque where he preached also was attended by Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the Sept. 11 plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Richard Reid, who was convicted of a foiled plot to detonate a shoe bomb aboard a passenger jet in December 2001, also attended the mosque. Abu Hamza denied knowing either man.
In explaining his philosophy, the cleric told jurors last week he wouldn’t sacrifice the truth to avoid conviction.
“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.”
The case is U.S. v. Mustafa, 04-cr-00356, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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