When 'Britain's Bin Laden' joined in his street's Queen's Jubilee celebrations

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Condemned as the "Bin Laden of Britain", the radical cleric Abu Hamza provoked hysterical headlines yesterday as he faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Condemned as the "Bin Laden of Britain", the radical cleric Abu Hamza provoked hysterical headlines yesterday as he faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

But as the Muslim extremist, aged 47, began his fight against extradition to the United States to face terrorism charges, an alternative view of the man touted as Britain's public enemy number one began to emerge.

He was arrested at his home in Shepherd's Bush in the early hours of Thursday. Police action at his house has been a regular event during the past few years. His inflammatory comments, in which he has praised Osama bin Laden and support for the 11 September attacks, were also likely to make him a hate figure. Yet he does not appear to be without his supporters.

One of his neighbours, Jenny Rees Tonge, writing in the Standard newspaper, said that "through the years that I have known him as a neighbour, [he] was unfailingly polite and courteous". She said he would exchange "titbits of news" with her, and once reprimanded one of his young followers for throwing a bollard across the street. She recalled his "low-key appearance at our street party two years ago for the Golden Jubilee".

Another neighbour, however, bemoaned his lack of interest in Neighbourhood Watch meetings and said he once sent a group of carol singers packing.

Little is known about his wife - his second - who is usually dressed in the traditional black burqa in public. The couple had six children together and adopted a boy. Colleagues say he is devoted to his family. The adopted son recently married and moved out of the family home, as have two of the grown-up children.

Far more is known about Mr Hamza's first wife, Valerie Fleming. The couple met when he was working as a night receptionist in a hotel in west London. At the time he was a student, with the name of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, who had come from his home in Alexandria, Egypt, to study engineering in 1979. He wore Western clothes and also worked as a nightclub bouncer.

The couple married in 1980, although public records show that his wife was still married to her previous husband, Michael Macias, from whom she divorced two years later. "It wasn't a marriage of convenience. I'm not an idiot. I would have been able to tell if it wasn't genuine," she said years later.

The couple had a son together, and Mrs Fleming had two children from a previous marriage. But the relationship broke up under the strain of racial abuse, the parents claim. Mrs Fleming said: "The children were bullied at school. It was awful to see what was happening to them. That was the reason why we split. It wasn't anything else. We did it because we didn't want the children to live like that."

Mrs Fleming said that the roots of Mr Hamza's fanaticism could be traced to the racism that he faced in Britain during their life together. She said that her husband "was hugely disillusioned. He had come to the West to what he thought was a civilised and sophisticated society. He could not understand how his family could come to be persecuted like this."

After the marriage collapsed in August 1984, the father was allowed custody of their four-year-old son and they went to live in Egypt. The boy would later be charged in Yemen for plotting a terrorist attack and given a three-year jail sentence. He has since moved to Birmingham and has claimed to be a full-time Islamic activist.

Meanwhile his father changed his name to Abu Hamza and returned to Britain in the 1990s, claiming he had lost both hands and an eye fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.

Sheikh Omar Bakri, of the radical Muslim group al-Muhajiroun, recalled Mr Hamza when he first came to his mosque. "He was not religious at first - he was a very fit man, wearing jeans and a T-shirt." He rapidly transformed himself into a radical cleric, based at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, and began to attract a small band of devoted supporters.

Journalists who have met him describe him as humorous and intelligent. He is a skilled public speaker. He rarely raises his voice: instead he speaks in a good-blokeish style which implies that everything he says is perfectly reasonable - even when he is praising the 11 September hijackers.

He is charismatic and particularly good at listening to young men who feel shunned elsewhere. Observers say that he takes a genuine interest in their welfare, which is rewarded by their devotion. Some young Muslim men, the American and British authorities claim, have gone on with his encouragement to fight for al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

Muslim leaders say that he is unrepresentative of mainstream opinion in their communities and gives a misleading and damaging impression of their beliefs.

He appears to revel in the media coverage. He has welcomed his demonisation by the right-wing tabloid press and the campaigns to have him removed from the UK.

Since he became a favourite with the media his robes have become smarter, his beard trimmer, and his outfits snappier. He has also started wearing sunglasses to cover his glass eye.