Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, the former north London imam more commonly known by his alias Abu Hamza, used his Finsbury Park mosque in the mid and late-1990s as his “base of operations for the global export of violence and terror”, a US prosecutor has told a New York court.
On the first day of testimony in a terror trial that is set to last about a month, Assistant US Attorney Edward Kim described the mosque as “brimming with hundreds of men whom Abu Hamza sought to deploy for his own violent purposes”. Those men, he added, were “all able-bodied Muslims and their duty was to wage war against non-Muslims, a duty to kill. It was violent, it was global, it was mandatory.”
Extradited from Britain to the US in 2012, the 56-year-old former cleric faces charges variously of helping to set up a training camp for sympathisers of al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Bly, Oregon, arranging followers to attend an al-Qa’ida training camp in Afghanistan and also providing a satellite phone for kidnappers in a 1998 hostage-taking attack on Westerners in Yemen which left four people dead.
If convicted on all charges he faces life in prison.
As a jury of 12 listened to opening statements from both sides in a federal courthouse in Manhattan, the defendant followed attentively from the defence table, wearing a short-sleeved smock that revealed his truncated arms – both hands were lost in an incident in Afghanistan. Under the orders of the court, he had been barred from wearing his trademark prosthetic hook which serves as a hand.
Even before the jury was led in, the judge, Katherine Forrest, revealed she had received a five-page letter from the defendant overnight requesting that he be allowed to deliver the opening statement for the defence. She denied the request.
But making the statement for him, his lead lawyer Joshua Dratel said that Abu Hamza would take the witness stand to testify on his own behalf later in the trial.
Mr Dratel urged jurors to distinguish between the alleged crimes, which he said would not be proven, and the content of the sermons Abu Hamza made at the mosque, some recordings of which are to be played to the jury by the prosecution as part of its case.
“He said a lot of harsh things,” Mr Dratel offered. “These are views, not acts. This is expression, not crimes. He needed to be outrageous to an extent to reach the entire spectrum of his community… he couldn’t walk a road that left him without access to extremists on one side or the other.”
Taking a brief historic detour, Mr Dratel noted that Western governments, including the US, and his client were once on the same side, fighting in defence of Muslims for example in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union and in Bosnia against the Serbians. Perceptions of leaders like his client evolve over time, he argued.
“For decades Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist and now he is an icon. Things change.”
The defence also noted that after questioning in Britain, Abu Hamza had not been charged in relation to the Yemen kidnapping. Instead, he had been “relied on by New Scotland Yard, MI5 and British intelligence to be a moderating influence” in the Muslim community in Britain and to “help them to know when trouble was going to happen”.
But the prosecution painted a far more damning picture. “Abu Hamza was not just a creature of religion,” Mr Kim insisted. “He was a trainer of terrorists, he used a cover of religion so he could hide in plain sight in London.” He noted that when British police raided the mosque they found “tools of war stockpiled in a house of worship”. Those, he said, included “knives, gas masks, flak jackets and chemical war suits”.
A key witness expected to testify for the prosecution is Saajid Badat, a British man who plotted with “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, to blow up airliners.
Badat was released after serving six and half years in prison in the UK after agreeing to act as a terrorist ‘supergrass’ and testify against former associates in trials such as this. Because he has refused to travel to the US for fear of being arrested, he will testify by video link.
Mr Dratel, however, said that Badat had never even met Abu Hamza and had attended only two of his sermons. “You will hear that even the United States doesn’t trust him,” he told the jury.