Muslim cleric arrested in London

Hamza faces extradition to U.S. over indictment on 11 terrorism charges

May 28, 2004|By COX NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - British authorities arrested Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri yesterday at the request of the United States government, which alleges that the fiery advocate of a holy war supported al-Qaida and tried to build a militant training camp in Oregon.

Those charges are part of an 11-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed yesterday in the Southern District of New York. The indictment also alleges that Hamza, as he calls himself, conspired with militants in Yemen to take tourists as hostages in 1998, four of whom were killed.

"Those who support our terrorist enemies anywhere in the world must know that we will not rest until the threat they pose is eradicated," said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, announcing the charges in New York. "It is a war where innocent lives are endangered not only by the terrorist who carries the bomb, but by those who recruit and equip the terrorists."

Hamza, 47, has attracted attention for years as an outspoken preacher at north London's Finsbury Park mosque.

He has called bin Laden "a good guy," claimed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were a Jewish plot, condemned the invasion of Iraq as a "war against Islam" and called the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia "punishment from Allah" because it carried Jewish, Hindu and Christian astronauts.

British police closed the mosque last year during a raid. Afterward, Hamza was banned from preaching there by the Charity Commission, a government body, on the grounds that his extremist political statements conflicted with the mosque's charitable status. Hamza switched his venue to the sidewalk outside the mosque and gave his incendiary sermons through a loudspeaker.

The mosque is known as the epicenter for radical Muslim activities in London.

Several convicted and indicted al-Qaida members worshiped at the mosque, including Richard Reid, the "shoe-bomber" who was convicted of trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight between Paris and Miami. Zacarias Moussaoui, who is awaiting trial for allegedly conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of conspiring to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport terminal during the millennium celebrations, also attended the mosque.

Hamza was arrested at 3 a.m. at his home in west London. Police closed the street and searched his house. Several items were seized, including videos, documents and a briefcase, the BBC reported.

Later in the day, Hamza made an initial court appearance at which the charges against him were detailed. A British judge ordered him held without bail and scheduled an extradition hearing for July 23.

Andrew Dismore, a Labor member of Britain's Parliament who has campaigned for Hamza's expulsion, called Hamza's arrest "a very important step."

"It's very welcome and long overdue," Dismore said.

But terrorism experts said the case would take months or even years to sort out.

Hamza faces the death penalty under U.S. law if convicted. British authorities are unlikely to grant extradition unless U.S. officials waive that penalty.

David Blunkett, Britain's home secretary, was quoted on the BBC as saying that he had an agreement with Ashcroft that "they will not carry out an execution."

Another complication is that British officials have been weighing bringing charges against Hamza for years. And Yemen has sought his extradition since 1999 on charges that he was involved in the same terrorist bombing and kidnapping, which figure in the U.S. indictment.

Some experts see Hamza's arrest as an indication that the British are becoming more aggressive about cracking down on Islamic extremists. who once enjoyed the country's liberal free speech laws.

"This could signal a tougher attitude on behalf of the British government," said Ian Lesser, vice president and director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

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