U.S. authorities Thursday charged a radical Muslim cleric in London with 11 terrorism-related crimes, including trying to set up a terror training camp in Oregon and assisting in the kidnapping of two Americans and others in Yemen.
The 11-count indictment, unsealed in federal court in Manhattan, was returned by a federal grand jury on April 19. U.S. authorities are seeking to extradite the man, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was arrested earlier Thursday in London.
If convicted of the most serious charge — hostage taking — al-Masri, 47, could face the death penalty. But British Home Secretary David Blunkett said in a radio interview Thursday that an agreement with U.S. officials specified that in al-Masri’s case, “they will not carry out an execution.” The U.S. Justice Department would not confirm such an arrangement.
“The United States will use every diplomatic, legal and administrative tool to pursue and prosecute those who facilitate terrorist activities,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said in announcing the indictment. “And we will not stop until the war against terrorism is won.”
Al-Masri, who has one eye and a steel hook in place of his right hand as a result of injuries he suffered while fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has been the focus of terror suspicions for years in Britain.
The indictment charges al-Masri, whose real name is Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, with hostage taking in connection with an attack in Yemen in December 1998 that resulted in the death of four hostages.
Accused in terror training camp plot
It also accuses him of trying to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon while providing aid to both al-Qaida and the Taliban.
According to the indictment, al-Masri tried to establish the terrorist camp in Bly, Ore., between October 1999 and early 2000.
Three months ago in Seattle, a Muslim convert with ties to al-Masri received two years in prison after pleading guilty to aiding the Taliban.
The man, James Ujaama, 38, who was arrested in July 2002, was indicted on two charges: conspiring to set up a terrorist training camp in Bly and using a firearm to further the conspiracy.
Prosecutors let him plead guilty in exchange for his cooperation in terrorism investigations. In particular, they wanted to hear what he knew about al-Masri, whose Web site Ujaama once ran.
Ashcroft said at a news conference that, among other evidence linking al-Masri to the plot, investigators had obtained a fax from co-conspirators in the United States to the cleric proposing creation of the camp.
Al-Masri also was charged with specifically providing material support to al-Qaida and the Taliban to foment “violent Jihad” in Afghanistan.
Al-Masri was the imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, which has been linked to several terrorist suspects, including Sept. 11, 2001, suspect Zacarias Moussaoui and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
‘The real deal’
“He is the real deal,” New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. “Think of him as a free-lance consultant to terrorist groups worldwide.”
Al-Masri’s arrest came a day after Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that a stream of credible intelligence indicated that a major terrorist attack could occur in the United States this summer and the FBI posted a list of seven wanted al-Qaida operatives.
But there was no indication that U.S. authorities believed al-Masri was linked to possible plots currently in the making.
Al-Masri was arrested about 3 a.m. at his home in west London, which also was searched.
He appeared Thursday afternoon before a magistrate at the high-security Belmarsh prison. He shrugged and laughed when asked whether he would consent to being extradited, then added, “I don't really think I want to, no.”
He was held in custody after bail was refused and scheduled to appear in court again on July 23.
Al-Masri’s lawyer, Maddrassar Arani, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that she had spoken to her client before his court appearance.
“He was quite calm about it,” Arani said. “He said, ‘Take your time and come down whenever you can.’ ”
Well-known Islamic radical
Al-Masri, who was born in Egypt but once had British citizenship, is one of Britain’s best known Islamic radicals. He has been fighting deportation by the government, which has accused him of advising and supporting terrorist groups, including al-Qaida. He also is wanted in Yemen on charges of orchestrating terrorism there from Britain.
The British government revoked his British citizenship in April 2003, calling him a threat to the country’s interests. He has appealed that decision to a special immigration tribunal. A ruling is not expected until early next year.
At an immigration hearing last month, a government lawyer said al-Masri had “provided advice and support to terrorist groups,” including al-Qaida and the Islamic Army of Aden, the organization that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
The lawyer said al-Masri had encouraged others to engage in jihad, “including fighting overseas and engaging in terrorist acts.”
Al-Masri, who married a British woman and took British citizenship in 1981, denies any involvement in violence and says he is only a spokesman for political causes.
The fiery preacher is a tabloid hate figure in Britain.
He has sparked outrage with sermons calling the invasion of Iraq a “war against Islam,” claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks were a Jewish plot and calling the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia a “punishment from Allah” because Christian, Jewish and Hindu astronauts were aboard.
Finsbury Park Mosque was shut down by its trustees after a police anti-terrorist raid in January 2003. The next month, al-Masri was banned from preaching there by a government body because his “extreme and political” statements conflicted with the mosque’s charitable status.
Since then, he has led Friday prayers on the street outside, under the watch of police.