Militant cleric held in alleged terror plot

U.S. wants Al-Masri in hostage-taking, aid to Taliban, al-Qaida

The World

August 27, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - In May, British police arrested an Islamic cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, after the United States requested his extradition on charges of hostage-taking and providing material support to al-Qaida and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, with al-Masri still in detention in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison, police arrested him again "on suspicion of being involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."

Police declined to explain their suspicion or their strategy, but a spokesman confirmed the new arrest and said the terrorism investigation that had led to it was a "discrete, separate inquiry" by British officials.

British authorities have two weeks to question al-Masri before they must formally charge him under the Terrorism Act or "de-arrest" him, though he would remain in detention during the extradition process.

Al-Masri is known as the spiritual leader of a group of militants who took over the Finsbury Park Mosque in London and turned it into a base for supporting holy war against the United States.

Among the young radicals who passed through the mosque were Richard C. Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber" who was sentenced to life in prison for trying to blow up an airplane in December 2001, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of being the would-be 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In July, lawyers representing the United States argued before a British judge that al-Masri had incited followers to violence against the United States.

An 11-count U.S. indictment charges al-Masri with advising the group of militants that took 16 tourists, including two Americans, hostage in Yemen in 1998.

Four of the captives, three Britons and an Australian, were killed and others wounded when Yemeni security forces mounted a rescue operation.

Al-Masri, 47, was born in Egypt, but holds British citizenship. He has said that he fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. A land mine explosion partially blinded him and severed his right hand, where he now wears a steel hook.

The U.S. indictment also alleges that al-Masri attempted to set up a militant training camp in Bly, Ore., in 1999 and 2000.

In May, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the maximum penalty on the hostage-taking charge is death.

British law prohibits extradition of a defendant to a country where the death penalty would be imposed upon conviction, and officials have made it clear that they would not send al-Masri to the United States if the death penalty is an option.

If U.S. authorities agreed not to impose the death penalty, British officials have suggested that that they would consider lifting the prohibition.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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