Abu Hamza, the former imam of the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, who is on trial in New York on terror charges, has testified that he lost an eye and both hands in 1993 assisting the Pakistani army to experiment with liquid explosives at a military residential compound in the city of Lahore.
In a second day of testimony for the defence, Abu Hamza, 56, gave for the first time a full account of what occurred that stood at odds with rumours that had implied an accident inside Afghanistan, possibly involving his preparing explosives for a military operation there. “This is exactly what happened: I am under oath,” the cleric said of the account when pressed by his defence lawyer, Joshua Dratel.
Abu Hamza also described London as a city rife with “lots of militancy” in the late 1990s, when he first ran a small Islamic centre in Luton and, from 1997, became the imam at Finsbury Park. “It was called ‘Londonistan’,” he told the jury, saying the capital was filled with competing Islamic factions – some of them with dangerous, radical, militant tendencies. “You had to compete with the language of radicalism,” he added.
The defence has portrayed its client as a preacher who had to use extremist rhetoric to get the ear of followers to preach his own message. He said his purpose was to pre-empt violence. “The law would also allow a lot of things. London had the IRA and at the same time they killed the cousin of the Queen,” he declared, adding: “You only need two or three mad from all the people to see bombs.”
Abu Hamza, who is facing 11 counts of terrorism-related charges involving support for efforts to set up an Islamic jihad training camp in Oregon and conspiring to kidnap a tour group in Yemen in 1998, said with regard to his earlier years abroad media reports of his having fought, particularly in support of the mujahedin in Afghanistan, had been overstated.
“I wish I had,” he said. “The media exaggerated. Unfortunately, the reputation is greater than the reality.”
He said that during his time in Afghanistan, working as an engineer for a Saudi Arabian charity, he had only fired “a couple of bullets” towards forces of the then Communist regime in Kabul.
It was after he left Afghanistan and moved to Peshawar in Pakistan that he was given a contract by the Pakistani army to assist with a road project and he was taken to Lahore to finish designs that would involve some use of explosives, he said. At a table outside a military villa, he was briefly left alone with three containers containing explosive fluids. He had been told that if anything went wrong the materials should be thrown into a nearby toilet.
He said he became concerned that silver foil around one container might be dangerous and he picked it up. “I felt it getting warm,” he testified. “I didn’t know how much time I had – I just wanted to get rid of it.” He saw someone in the toilet so he couldn’t throw it there. “It went off.” In a coma, he was transported to a hospital where he stayed for a month. “When I came out of the coma, I didn’t know I had lost my hands.”
The trial continues.