Arifa Akbar: The day I went for tea with Britain's public enemy No. 1

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The Independent Online

Sheikh Abu Qatada let me into his home because I was a fellow Muslim. I spoke to his wife, saying Salaam a'laikum to her from the other side of the door of their slightly shabby terraced house in Acton. A few moments later a man led me into a sitting room with the curtains firmly drawn against the street outside, which was teeming with reporters and cameramen.

Back then, in the weeks after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Qatada, his wife and their young children dancing around inside were not to know that he would shortly be arrested, imprisoned and held for much of the next decade without charge, suspected by intelligence sources of being al-Qa'ida's London-based fixer.

The room was cluttered and basic, with low-lying cushions along one side instead of a sofa. The man who had opened the door turned out to be a translator, who sat down on the carpet beside Abu Qatada, a burly man in a white robe, his face more cherubic than it has since become. He looked like a bookish cleric, with tomes lining his living room walls. He was incredibly courteous to both myself and the photographer, offering us tea and bringing in a chair. It was a warm welcome.

One of his four children – a cute little boy with no shirt on, wandered into the room, eager to be by his father, before he was gently ushered out again. It was most likely his then seven-year-old son, Qatada, who will now be 18.

Abu Qatada talked in Arabic, calm at first, but then loudly, urgently and with passion, interrupting his translator with more thoughts and exclamations at the end of each answer. He seemed impatient to be understood. He said, again and again, that he had been abjectly misquoted and misrepresented by the British press.

The conversation lasted at least an hour. He was strangely open, speaking of his outrage at being accused of being the "European ambassador" for Osama bin Laden and for being labelled a suspected terrorist – but also of other more domestic matters. He told me he had only £624 in his bank, that he was renting his home and feared eviction, and that he was looking to sell his car to anyone who would buy it for £700.