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Middle East

Abu Qatada will be a free man in Jordan soon, his family predict

On the streets of Amman where Britain’s Public Enemy No 1 grew up, Fernande van Tets discovers a very different view of him

Abu Qatada’s family said on Monday they expected to have him home within days and expressed their hopes court proceedings against the controversial cleric would progress smoothly so he could soon return to normal life. Close friends claimed the decade-long fight to deport Qatada from Britain is unlikely to end in a jail term, and said in their opinion he would almost certainly be cleared by the Jordanian courts.

“In two days they will let us know if they will let him out on bail,” a relative said on Monday. He added Qatada was not afraid of incarceration in Jordan and was “comfortable”, stressing he chose to return of his own accord.

“Normal life” for the 53-year-old would mean a return to his apartment in the neighbourhood where he grew up, and eating falafel from the restaurant opened by his father 64 years ago. It is now run by his brother, while his father has become the imam of a mosque down the street that Qatada himself helped to build in the 1980s.

Qatada’s return to Jordan has also revealed details of the young man who would become Britain’s least wanted visitor. As a young boy Qatada was not religious, his friend Hassan Abu Hanieh recalls. “We didn’t care about praying or fasting,” he says. “We had a normal childhood, we went to school in the neighbourhood and played football.” It was only in high school, where Qatada excelled, that religion began to consume him. “We could sense his change into an Islamic man when he was 16,” recalls Hanieh. At that time Qatada joined an islamic group called Tablih wa Dawa, quickly rising to become leader of the peaceful movement.

He studied Islamic law at the University of Jordan and became a sergeant in the Jordanian army. He was stationed at the Sharia directorate and became a preacher for detainees in the military prison, where political prisoners were also incarcerated.

“He was searching for a new thought and ideology,” said Marwan Shahadeh, who was introduced to Qatada by a relative of his who was a political prisoner and had found solace in Qatada’s teachings. Reading up to 18 hours a day, Qatada became well versed in issues of Islamic law. In combination with his charisma, he seemed destined for greater things. “He was a leader; you knew he would be somebody important in the Arab world,” Shahadeh said.

It was only after he left for Malaysia, where he studied for his master’s degree, that his ideology started to shift to a more militant form of Islam. He left after three months to move to Peshawar in Pakistan. It is here his more militant teachings, such as those later found in the flat of 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta, began to take shape.

After a disagreement on the legitimacy of the Taliban, he left for London in 1993, travelling on a fake UAE passport. Once in the UK he claimed asylum on the grounds that extraditing him to Jordan would allow him to be tortured. After 9/11 and the subsequent passing of anti-terror laws he soon found himself in the British government’s sights, and he was detained for several years without trial. “They could not see the difference between salafi jihadists and al-Qa’ida,” complains Abu Hanieh, who maintains that Qatada did not buy into al-Qa’ida’s ideology of targeting the “far enemy” in the West over dictators at home.

His was twice convicted in absentia for conspiring to engage in terrorist activities in Jordan, and courts there sentenced him to life imprisonment. The same charges were repeated at the State Security Court on Sunday, where Qatada denied all allegations.  His co-conspirators were sentenced and later pardoned by the king. It is this precedent which makes Abu Hanieh optimistic his friend will be freed. 

The exclusion of evidence obtained under torture, the prerequisite for Qatada’s return to Jordan, is another reason. “It’s usual to get evidence by torture here,” said Abu Hanieh, who has been imprisoned many times.

It is expected that he will sign a waiver which will prohibit him from certain activities in exchange for his release, though whether he could try to re-enter Britain is unknown. Foreign nationals can be refused entry where the Secretary of State has “personally directed” that exclusion is “conducive to the public good”. Last night the Home Office would not comment on “speculative” enquiries about his possible return. For now, Qatada’s family are just happy to have him home.