Abu Hamza: The trial of a violent jihadist

Court sketch of Abu Hamza Abu Hamza was a peacemaker, his defence team suggested.

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He was the radical preacher who made his name at Finsbury Park mosque in London. Now Abu Hamza al-Masri has been convicted of terrorism offences in the United States.

Over five weeks, on the 15th floor of a Lower Manhattan courthouse less than a mile from Ground Zero, the jury was presented with two wildly different portraits of Abu Hamza, the radical cleric famed in Britain but virtually unknown in America.

The "real Abu Hamza", according to US prosecutors, was a man who dedicated his life to violent jihad: fighting, shooting, killing.

He was "the boss", a leader and recruiter of impressionable young men who were dispatched around the world to fight his battles.

To Yemen, where he was accused of participating in the 1998 kidnapping of 16 western tourists, which ended with the deaths of three Britons and an Australian.

To rural Oregon on the west coast of America, where he sent his most trusted henchmen to establish a jihadist training camp. To Afghanistan, to fight for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The "calm, accepting" figure who appeared before them in court - almost unrecognisable from the firebrand preacher they saw in videos from his days at Finsbury Park mosque - was a fraud.

'Language of radicalism'

Abu Hamza's defence team had tried to present him as a peacemaker and humanitarian, who had travelled to Afghanistan not to fight jihad but to build schools for girls.

Rather than conspire in the kidnapping of the western hostages, he had tried to bring about their release.

His fiery sermons were intended to catch the ear of radicalised young Muslims and also to boost his standing, so that he could use his influence to moderate their behaviour.

"You have to compete in the language of radicalism," he told the jury.

Abu Hamza outside Finsbury Park mosque Abu Hamza was trying to keep London safe, his defence team claimed

When approached by prospective suicide bombers, he tried to persuade them not to go through their murderous plans.

The defence also claimed that Abu Hamza had "secretly worked for MI5" so as "to keep the streets of London safe", and been in regular contact with Scotland Yard.

Not that the jury ever got to see evidence backing up these assertions. The judge, Katherine Forrest, ruled that papers from Scotland Yard, brandished by his defence lawyer while the jury was not present, were inadmissible.

At the outset of the trial, his defence team had claimed he was misunderstood and misrepresented, much like Nelson Mandela and George Washington early in their careers - a line that made journalists in the overspill room laugh.

Hamza in Trafalgar Square Abu Hamza told the court he lost his hands in Pakistan, rather than fighting Soviets in Afghanistan

Each day the bespectacled 56-year-old was brought through an underground passageway from his jailhouse next door, and appeared in court wearing a T-shirt and loose-fitting tracksuit bottoms. His famed hook confiscated, he wrote notes using a prosthetic with a pen attached.

Soft-spoken and unruffled

One of the most fascinating parts of the trial came when he described how he had lost both his hands, and also the sight in one eye.

His injuries came not from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, as he had told followers, but rather in Lahore, Pakistan, when liquid explosives intended for use in a road construction project went off by mistake.

An intriguing detail of his story was that the Pakistan military purportedly owned and operated the house in which the explosion occurred.

On the witness stand, he was for the most past soft-spoken and unruffled.

"The reputation is much bigger than the reality", he joked at the outset.

But the judge admonished him during his testy exchanges with the prosecution lawyer, telling him not to deliver sermons.

The New York court where Hamza was tried Abu Hamza told the New York court of his admiration for Osama Bin Laden

Appearing before an audience for the first time since his trial in London in 2006, Abu Hamza got the chance to tell his life story.

Born in Egypt in 1958, he had studied engineering, but ended up running a strip club in Soho, London, "on the wrong side of morality".

Later on, after he had devoted his life to Islam, he worked at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

That was where Prince Harry trained, Abu Hamza informed the jury.

Here, he seemed to be presenting himself not just as a regular guy but almost as a pillar of British society.

Then he worked full-time as a cleric, ending up at the Finsbury Park mosque.

But members of the jury bridled noticeably when he spoke of his love of Osama Bin Laden, although he claimed to disagree with the al-Qaeda leader's methods.

The prosecution regularly cited his praise of the 11 September attacks, which never goes down well in a New York courtroom.

Former hostage Mary Quin Former hostage Mary Quin was amongst the witnesses

Perhaps the most riveting testimony of the trial came from Mary Quin, a New Zealander who was kidnapped in 1998. In vivid, meticulous and near emotionless detail, she described the gun battle between the hostage-takers and Yemeni forces that ended with the death of four of her travelling companions.

Then she described her visit to the Finsbury Park mosque afterwards, where she conducted a taped interview with Abu Hamza for a book she was writing on her ordeal.

"We never thought it would get that bad," Abu Hamza told her.

For the prosecution, that statement was an admission of guilt.

The preacher claimed to be weary that day, and said he had not meant to use the word "we". Often he mixed up pronouns.

Mohammed Mustafa Kamel, Abu Hamza was trying to secure the release of his son Mohammed Mustafa Kamel, the court heard.

For the prosecution, the smoking gun came in the form of a satellite phone that Abu Hamza had purchased in London and sent to Yemen, which was used by the kidnappers during the hostage crisis.

On the eve of the kidnapping, Abu Hamza had spoken for seven minutes with the ringleader, Abu Hassan.

Three times on the day of the kidnapping, Abu Hassan had placed calls to Abu Hamza's home in London, speaking to him on one occasion.

'Words not deeds'

Start Quote

Can someone who has ranted and raved for years about anti-American statements get a fair trial in front of a New York jury in the shadows of the World Trade Center?”

End Quote Jeremy Schneider Defence lawyer

Prosecutors said the hostages were taken so that Abu Hamza could secure the release of his son, Mohammed Mustafa Kamel, and stepson, who had been arrested five days before by the Yemen authorities.

He told Mary Quin they were going "to hold people for ransom until the government let my people go."

Abu Hamza, who admitted buying both the phone and additional minutes, proffered an innocent explanation.

He wanted to act as a "mouthpiece" for a group of rebels seeking to overthrow the president of Yemen.

Here, he likened himself to the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and said he had no idea of the planned kidnapping.

His defence team told jury members they were being asked to speculate about the content of his phone conversations with Abu Hassan. Besides, why would he buy a phone in his own name, if it were intended for use in the kidnap?

During the trial, there were occasional moments of humour. Explaining how easy it was to change your name, Abu Hamza - who was born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa - noted: "Pay £25. If you want to be John Travolta, you become John Travolta."

He also broke down twice on the stand, when he tearfully described the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995.

Abu Hamza in court sketch Much of the prosecution case was based on words, not deeds, the defence said

As for the British convictions against him - Abu Hamza was jailed for seven years in Britain on 11 counts, including six charges of soliciting murder - they were trumped-up charges, he claimed.

"A lot, if not the majority, of their evidence was his words, not his deeds," said his defence lawyer Jeremy Schneider, during his closing argument.

"Can someone who has ranted and raved for years about anti-American statements get a fair trial in front of a New York jury in the shadows of the World Trade Center?" he added.

But the prosecution claimed his incendiary sermons revealed his true personality and intentions: "Why do these words matter? Because they match his actions."

For eight years, US prosecutors fought to extradite Abu Hamza to America, a country he had never before visited. Now they have secured a long-anticipated conviction on charges punishable by life imprisonment.

The question will surely now be asked, given that three Britons lost their lives as a result of being taken hostage, why the UK authorities never sought to convict him on the same grounds.

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