'Bin Laden's spiritual ambassador' faces unwelcome return to homeland

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The 20-stone cleric has long clashed with police and security services in Britain, where he fled to 12 years ago using a forged United Arab Emirates passport.

On one occasion, anti-terrorist police arresting Mr Qatada found £170,000 cash on him, including £805 in an envelope marked "For the mujahedin in Chechnya".

While it was a Spanish judge who linked the 44-year-old so closely with Bin Laden, British authorities agree now that the Palestinian-Jordanian is a "truly dangerous individual".

For some time, the father of five has been a high-profile figure in terrorism cases and the most prominent of 12 Belmarsh detainees; the others were said to defer to him at the high-security prison.

The radical cleric, who is said to have links with attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the "20th hijacker" in the 11 September atrocities, was convicted of terrorist acts in Jordan, and several European countries are believed to be trying to extradite him.

In 1995, just one year after he was granted leave to remain in Britain as a refugee, Mr Qatada issued a fatwa which appeared to justify killing the wives and children of "apostates" to stop oppression of Muslims in Algeria. Four years later he reportedly made a speech advocating killing Jews.

In February 2001, the cleric was arrested by anti-terror officers because he was suspected of involvement with plot to bomb the Strasbourg Christmas market. No charges were brought due to insufficient evidence.

Just before new laws were passed in December 2001 - allowing terror suspects to be detained without charge or trial - he disappeared from his home in Acton, west London. For 10 months Mr Qatada - whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman - evaded capture. But he was arrested in an armed raid on a council house in south London in October 2002.

While the Special Immigration Appeal Tribunal (Siac), which heard an appeal against his detention, rejected claims he headed al-Qa'ida in Europe, its chairman Mr Justice Collins said: "The appellant was heavily involved, indeed was at the centre, in the United Kingdom of terrorist activities associated with al-Qa'ida. He is a truly dangerous individual.

"We have no doubt that his beliefs are extreme and are indeed a perversion of Islam for the purposes of encouraging violence."

Mr Qatada was freed from Belmarsh on conditional bail by Siac in March this year and shortly afterwards was handed a control order designed to limit his movements and contact with other people.

It was the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon who labelled him Bin Laden's spiritual leader during an investigation into Spanish ties to the 11 September attacks.

Mr Qatada, who tried to get indefinite leave to remain in Britain in May 1998 in an application which was not decided at the time of his detention, has denied meeting Osama bin Laden or being his ambassador in Europe.