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A cleric who stuck to his guns

Until his arrest on U.S. charges of links to al-Qaida, radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri remained defiant even as he was stripped of his British citizenship, yanked from his pulpit and accused of supporting terrorists.
British police arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri on an extradition warrant from the United States on Thursday.Matt Dunham / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stripped of his British citizenship, yanked from his pulpit and accused of supporting terrorists, Abu Hamza al-Masri has remained defiant.

Until his arrest Thursday on U.S. charges of links to al-Qaida, al-Masri, the radical Muslim cleric known to Britain’s tabloids as “the Hook,” delivered fiery sermons every week outside his former mosque and made headlines with provocative anti-Western comments. His nickname comes from hooks that replace the hands he says he lost fighting in Afghanistan.

He has said he hopes God destroys the United States, and he responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by saying: “Many people will be happy, jumping up and down at this moment.”

He called the attacks a Jewish plot and has said the invasion of Iraq was part of a “war against Islam.” The explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, al-Masri said, was “a punishment from God” and the vessel itself “a trinity of evil against Islam” because it carried Americans, a Hindu astronaut from India and an Israeli.

Such talk has made him one of Britain’s best-known Muslim radicals and a tabloid hate figure. The newspapers regularly lambaste him as a hypocrite who speaks out against the country that shelters him, and they had slammed authorities for not arresting him.

Delicate dance with police
Al-Masri, 47, is known for calibrating his sharp rhetoric just enough to deny police grounds to arrest him. He denies any involvement in violence and says he is only a spokesman for political causes.

Last year, detectives stormed and searched the mosque in north London where al-Masri had preached. Authorities said the raid was linked to their earlier discovery of the deadly poison ricin.

Britain’s charity watchdog ejected him from the mosque’s pulpit, saying he had abused its status as a registered charity by using it for political activities.

Since then, al-Masri has led Friday prayers on the street under the watch of police.

The Finsbury Park mosque is a well-known center of radicalism, and it has been linked to Zacarias Moussaoui, a suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, and Richard Reid, who tried to blow up his sneakers aboard a trans-Atlantic flight.

The government had been seeking to deport al-Masri, who was born in Egypt but whose British citizenship shielded him from a tough anti-terrorism law aimed at foreigners.

Officials revoked his British nationality in April 2003, invoking a new law allowing citizenship to be stripped from immigrants who “seriously prejudice” the country’s interest. He is appealing that decision.

Britain says al-Masri gave “advice and support” to terrorist groups including al-Qaida, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, the Islamic Army of Aden — the organization that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 — and militants in Egypt and Kashmir.

His name is also on a U.N. Security Council list of al-Qaida associates. Yemen accuses him of orchestrating terrorism there while living in Britain.

Born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa in Alexandria, Egypt, he came to Britain in 1979 hoping to become a civil engineer. He studied in the southern town of Brighton and worked as a nightclub bouncer in London’s Soho district. He got citizenship after marrying Valerie Fleming in 1981, but they divorced five years later.

Fleming has reportedly said her ex-husband grew more radical after they parted. He is thought to have traveled to Afghanistan as a fighter against the Soviet-backed government in the early 1990s.