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US: Cleric tried to start terror camp
Updated: 2004-05-28 02:28

Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery Muslim cleric whose shuttered London mosque was linked to Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid, was arrested Thursday in Britain, accused in a U.S. indictment of trying to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon and providing aid to al-Qaida, officials said.

Al-Masri, 47, also is charged in the 11-count indictment with hostage-taking and conspiracy in connection with a December 1998 incident that killed four tourists in Yemen.

A file photograph dated February 7, 2003 shows Muslim cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza leading prayers at the North London Mosque at Finsbury Park. British police arrested Hamza on an extradition warrant from the United States, a spokeswoman said on May 27, 2004. [Reuters]

"Those who support our terrorist enemies anywhere in the world must know that we will not rest until the threat they pose is eradicated," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in announcing the arrest.

Al-Masri, whose real name is Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, was arrested at his London home, British authorities said. He was the imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque, which has been linked to Sept. 11 suspect Moussaoui and Reid and was shut down in January 2003 after a police anti-terrorism raid.

Ashcroft said U.S. authorities were seeking his extradition.

Britain, in common with other European Union countries, will not extradite suspects who could face the death penalty; such action is barred under the European Convention on Human Rights. Ashcroft has said extradition requests involving capital crimes should be dealt with on a "case by case" basis.

In the past, the United States has dropped the death penalty in such cases to expedite a prosecution. British Home Secretary David Blunkett said in a radio interview Thursday that an agreement with American officials last year specified that in al-Masri's case, "they will not carry out an execution." There was no immediate confirmation from Ashcroft.

Al-Masri appeared Thursday afternoon before a magistrate at the high-security Belmarsh prison. He shrugged and laughed when asked if he would consent to being extradited, then added, "I don't really think I want to, no."

According to the indictment, al-Masri tried to establish the terrorist camp in Bly, Ore., between October 1999 and early 2000. He was also charged with specifically providing material support to al-Qaida and the Taliban to foment jihad, or holy war, in Afghanistan.

The indictment said Mustafa acted as an intermediary with the terrorists who took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen six years ago, and spoke with the terrorists before and after the incident.

Three British tourists and an Australian visitor were killed when Yemen rescuers were involved in a shootout with the Islamic extremist captors.

If convicted on the charges, he could face the death penalty or life in prison. The indictment, returned last month, was unsealed Thursday.

The arrest came a day after top U.S. law enforcement officials warned that a stream of credible intelligence indicates a major terrorist attack could happen in the summer, and the FBI posted a list of seven wanted al-Qaida operatives.

The Egyptian-born al-Masri is not among the seven wanted figures, but has been the focus of terrorism suspicions for years in Britain.

The suspect's lawyer, Maddrassar Arani, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that she had spoken to her client, who was being held in a central London police station.

"He was quite calm about it," Arani said. "He said take your time and come down whenever you can."

Anti-terrorist officers also conducted a search of his west London home, police said.

Al-Masri is one of Britain's best known Islamic radicals. He has been fighting deportation by the government. He is also wanted in Yemen on charges of orchestrating terrorism there from Britain.

The suspect, who married a British woman and took British citizenship in 1981, denies any involvement in violence and says he is only a spokesman for political causes.

The fiery preacher with one eye and hooks for hands — lost, he says, fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s — is a tabloid hate figure in Britain.

Al-Masri has sparked outrage with sermons calling the invasion of Iraq a "war against Islam," claiming the Sept. 11 attacks were a Jewish plot and calling the space shuttle Columbia disaster a "punishment from Allah" because Christian, Jewish and Hindu astronauts were aboard.

The British government revoked al-Masri's British citizenship in April 2003, calling him a threat to the country's interests. He has appealed that decision to a special immigration tribunal and a ruling isn't expected until early next year.

In February in Seattle, a Muslim convert with ties to Hamza, James Ujaama, was sentenced to two years in prison. Ujaama, whose original name was James Ernest Thompson, had pleaded guilty last year to aiding the Taliban.

Ujaama, 38, was arrested in July 2002 and was indicted on two charges: conspiring to set up a terrorist training camp in Bly, a southern Oregon town of 700, and using a firearm to further the conspiracy. He was accused of visiting a ranch in Bly in or around October 1999 and proposing the establishment of a jihad training camp on the property

In April 2003, the government dropped those charges and filed a superseding complaint alleging that Ujaama brought money, computer equipment and a recruit to Taliban officials in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors let him plead guilty in exchange for his cooperation in terrorism investigations. In particular, they wanted to hear what he knew about al-Masri, whose Web site Ujaama once ran.

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