Islamic Cleric Lied in Claim to Be Peacemaker, U.S. Says

Abu Hamza al-Masri, a Muslim cleric on trial in the U.S. for supporting the al-Qaeda network, lied when he testified that he was a peacemaker whose call for jihad wasn’t meant to promote violence, a prosecutor told jurors.

Abu Hamza, who once preached at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, is accused in Manhattan federal court of providing support to al-Qaeda by dispatching followers to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon and at least one man to train in Afghanistan. He also allegedly gave a satellite phone to kidnappers for a deadly 1998 incident in Yemen.

The jury is set to begin deliberations today. During closing arguments yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian McGinley told jurors that Abu Hamza, 56, tried to deceive them during his three days of testimony. Abu Hamza, who denies wrongdoing, faces life in prison if convicted of the most serious of 11 charges.

“Oregon, Afghanistan, Yemen -- these were the defendant’s choices,” McGinley said. “Yet when he testified in this courtroom, he ran from all those choices and decisions that were at the core of his devotion to jihad. He ran, saying he was just misunderstood.”

On the stand, Abu Hamza told jurors he “loved” Osama bin Laden but said he had rejected an invitation to join al-Qaeda. He testified that his followers had engaged in violent acts without his knowledge.

‘Professional Speaker’

McGinley called Abu Hamza a “professional speaker” who acted as a “boss,” urging followers to engage in violent acts against non-Muslims from the London mosque. Telephone records show that he not only bought satellite air time while the Yemeni kidnapping was happening in December 1998, but also spoke with the abductors twice during the attack, the prosecutor said.

“He wants you to believe he was misunderstood, that it was everyone else’s fault,” McGinley said. “That is an utter and complete lie. The defendant’s followers fought the defendant’s battles across the globe. The defendant’s entire approach in testifying was to fool you and run from his choices.”

Jeremy Schneider, a lawyer for Abu Hamza, told jurors in closing arguments that the government was attempting to convict his client for his speeches.

“He’s guilty of being self-important. He’s guilty of playing both sides in difficult religious conflicts around the world,” Schneider said. “His words were taken out of context. This case is about what he did, not what he said in the 1990s.”

Charge Denied

Schneider reminded jurors his client had denied helping al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

“He was never seen doing anything illegal, never seen carrying a weapon,” the lawyer said. “This case isn’t about the truth, this is about hope and power.” Cooperating witnesses who agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for leniency have “the hope to get out, and the government has the power to do that.”

Abu Hamza, who was born in Egypt as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, testified he trained as a civil engineer after immigrating to the U.K. and 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 and extradited to the U.S. in 2012.

The mosque was attended by Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the Sept. 11 plot to fly planes into New York’s 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.

The case is U.S. v. Mustafa, 04-cr-00356, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.