By Philip Sherwell,New York
7:41PM BST 07 May 2014
Abu Hamza, the radical Islamic preacher notorious for his hate-filled sermons, was in reality working secretly with British intelligence “to keep the streets of London safe” by “cooling hotheads”, his lawyer claimed in a US court.
Holding up what he said were reports from Scotland Yard, Joshua Dratel described the cleric as an “intermediary” who cooperated with MI5 and the police to try to end foreign hostage-takings and defuse tensions with the Muslim community in Britain.
The extraordinary admission will fuel conspiracy theories that he was allowed to preach hatred without arrest for so long in the UK because he was working with the security authorities.
His portrayal of the fiery Egyptian-born imam presented a very different picture from the one laid out by earlier by prosecutors who have accused him of operating a global terror network from the Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
Mr Dratel, the lead defence attorney, made the startling claim as Hamza prepared to take the witness box in his own defence in his New York trial where he has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of terrorism.
The lawyer was arguing against a prosecution request for the judge to block the cleric from talking about any dealings with British authorities that did not relate directly to the allegations against him in court.
Hamza was extradited to the US in 2012 after serving a six-year jail term in Britain for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder.
During his trial in the UK in 2006, Hamza claimed he was in regular discussions with MI5 and Special Branch between 1997 and 2000.
He claimed then that he was told he could continue to preach “as long as we don’t see blood on the street”.
The alleged discussions occurred at a time of heightened concern in the UK over the amount of Islamist extremists sheltering here, which led to the nickname “Londonistan”.
Hamza told the Old Bailey then that it was not until 2000 that he was then warned he was “walking a tightrope”.
Abu Hamza speaking outside Finsbury Park Mosque in London, 2003 (PAUL GROVER)
In New York, he now faces much more serious charges of funnelling cash and recruits to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, involvement in a hostage-taking in Yemen in which three Britons were killed and trying to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon.
The cleric, who is on trial just a few streets from the scene of the Sept 2001 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Centre, has previously praised those 9/11 attacks as a “towering day in history” and lauded Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda founder.
But Mr Dratel contended that his client was in fact just making those outrageous statements to appeal to parts of the Muslim community.
“He’s going to testify that he took a certain position publicly for a certain reason, but at the same time his intention was to de-escalate, to avoid wider war and to keep the streets of London safe,” Mr Dratel told Judge Katherine Forrest in deliberations before the jury was ushered into the federal courtroom.
He said that Hamza expressed his true “intent” in discussions with Scotland Yard and MI5. “It goes to the theme of our defence that he was an intermediary, that MI5 asked him on multiple times to act in hostage situations, cool down the community and maintain a sense of order,” he argued.
Mr Dratel said he was working from 50 pages of reports of Scotland Yard – “their notes of what was said” – in dealings with Hamza between May 1997 and August 2000, the period covered by US charges against him.
“The documents were provided by the UK,” he said. “They touch on virtually every conflict that we are talking about in this case – Algeria, Bosnia, Yemen, Afghanistan.”
There were rumours that Abu Hamza was in some way being protected by the police or security services (GETTY)
The fact that Hamza was able to preach publicly in Britain for so long before he was apprehended fuelled rumours that he was in some way being protected by the police or security services, but there was never any confirmation of this.
Mr Dratel cited specific cases in which he said that the British authorities turned to Hamza for his assistance.
After arrests were made in Britain related to the civil war in Algeria, Hamza was asked “how the community is reacting and how to keep the community in equilibrium”, he said. “He agreed to do so and made proposals.”
On another occasion, when a British captive was taken in Kashmir, Hamza was reportedly asked to try to intervene as he had connections with the hostage-taking group from his time in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Mr Dratel said his client made “some phone calls” but was unable to help.
And the lawyer said that after two suspects in the 1998 US embassy bombings in east Africa were subsequently arrested in Britain, there was a discussion between Hamza and the authorities about “cooling the hotheads”.
The judge later sided with the prosecution and ruled that Hamza could not testify about dealings with British intelligence. The defence said that it would ask her to review her decision on Thursday, in the light of other cases which they would bring to her attention.
Hamza lost both his arms and an eye in Afghanistan, but the US judicial authorities have removed his famous prosthetic hook as a security risk to himself and others.
Instead, he used a prosthetic limb with a pen attached to scribble notes on post-it paper and passed them to his lawyers sitting next to him in the wood-panelled courtroom on the 15th floor, overlooking lower Manhattan.
Wearing a light blue T-shirt and black track suit bottoms, with a silver beard and his steel-rimmed glasses held in place by a cord around his neck, he struck a much less sinister figure than the ranting imam who delivered incendiary statements and sermons in London.
The jury later watched in rapt attention as a New Zealand woman described the terrifying ordeal of a group of Western tourists taken hostage by Islamic radicals in Yemen in 1998. Three Britons were killed in an intense gun-battle with Yemeni soldiers as the militants used their captives as human shields.
Hamza is accused of helping to organise the hostage-taking to obtain the release of several Britons, including his son, who had been arrested with suspected bomb-making equipment by Yemen.
Mary Quin, the witness, went to the Finsbury Park mosque in 2000 to confront Hamza about his alleged role and taped the encounter. In excerpts played to the court, he told her that the hostage-taking was justified “Islamically” and that it was intended to help secure the release of “my people”.
He acknowledged speaking to the lead kidnapper during the crisis and that he had provided the gang with a satellite phone.
Hamza, who faces a life sentence if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Profile: Abu Hamza
9 May 2014 Last updated at 03:07 ET
Abu Hamza al-Masri is on trial in New York on terror charges. But who is the man who became the most prominent radical cleric in the United Kingdom?
Born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa in Alexandria, Egypt, on 15 April 1958, Abu Hamza was the son of a naval officer and a primary school headmistress. He initially studied civil engineering before leaving for England in 1979.
In London, one of his first jobs was as a nightclub bouncer. He married a British woman who he says encouraged him to embrace Islam.
“I took time off from the clubs and I enjoyed it,” he said at his trial in the US.
He decided to resume his studies at Brighton Polytechnic and gained a civil engineering degree, joining the Institution of Civil Engineers where he remained a member until 1994.
His marriage rapidly broke down but he later remarried and had seven children.
One of Abu Hamza’s first major engineering contracts took him to the Royal Military Training Academy at Sandhurst. Technical drawings of the college were still in his home when he was arrested in 2004.
In the early 1980s the young Abu Hamza started to show an interest in Islam and politics. He was heavily influenced by the Iranian revolution.
Some Muslim thinkers were calling for Islamic states in Islamic lands. They had a military face in the Mujahideen fighters who, backed by the US, emerged to oppose the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan.
- 15 April 1958 – born Alexandria, Egypt
- 1979 – travelled to England
- 1987 – meets founder of Afghan Mujahideen
- 1997 – arrives at Finsbury Park Mosque
- 2002 – gives speech praising 09/11 hijackers
- 2004 – arrested on terrorism charges
- 2006 – convicted and jailed for seven years
- 2012 – extradited to the United States after a long legal battle
- 2014 – goes on trial in New York
In 1987, after meeting Abdullah Azzam, an influential supporter of the notion of Muslims being obliged to fight jihad, Abu Hamza moved to Afghanistan.
It was around this time that he lost an eye and both his hands. Accounts of exactly how and where the accident happened conflict.
It had been claimed his distinctive features were the result of an explosion while he was taking part in a demining project in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
But at his US trial Abu Hamza said it happened while he was working with the Pakistani military in Lahore when an experiment with explosives went wrong.
He returned to the UK in 1993 for treatment. But within two years he had left Britain again to support Bosnian Muslims during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
Abu Hamza quickly became a leading figure in the British Islamist scene. He was spending more and more of his time preaching while churning out leaflets calling for jihad against corrupt Middle East regimes.
In 1997, he arrived at Finsbury Park Mosque.
There are suggestions that the police and intelligence services were already watching Abu Hamza along with other militants at this time. According to Abu Hamza himself, MI5 first contacted him in 1997 shortly after extremists massacred 68 tourists at Luxor, Egypt.
But it was in 1999 that he came to national prominence.
Scotland Yard questioned the cleric on suspicion of alleged bomb plots in Yemen. While Abu Hamza was released, his son, Mohammed Mustafa Kamel, was jailed in Yemen for three years for involvement in an alleged campaign of violence.
Despite this brush with the law, Abu Hamza was consolidating his hold at the mosque. It had become a hostile environment for anyone who was not a supporter, with his closest confidantes barring access to anyone they did not trust.
He was delivering almost all the sermons. On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he co-organised a conference at the mosque praising the hijackers.
Five years later the trial of the men later convicted of the failed 21/7 London bombings heard that several of them had gone along to hear Abu Hamza preach. Other convicted terrorists have been linked to Finsbury Park.
Time runs out
Abu Hamza himself was not arrested in connection with that probe. But despite being denied a base, he preached outside its gates every Friday.
This bizarre stand-off between Abu Hamza and the authorities continued into 2004. Then, Washington (Bush administration) named Abu Hamza as a “terrorist facilitator with a global reach” and he was arrested pending extradition.
Five months later, he was charged with 15 UK offences associated with his sermons and terror handbooks found at his home. He was convicted on 11 counts and was jailed for seven years.
The American authorities continued to pursue his extradition. Following an eight-year legal battle, he was finally extradited in 2012.
He is now on trial in New York, accused of offences including plotting to to set up a terror camp in rural Oregon, intending to provide support for terrorists in Afghanistan and in connection with the 1998 Yemen attack. He denies all the charges
But even if convicted he will not go to a supermax prison – where many people convicted of such offences in the US are sent. That was a concession to satisfy the European Court of Human Rights when it was considering his extradition appeal.
“He decided to resume his studies at Brighton Polytechnic and gained a civil engineering degree, joining the Institution of Civil Engineers where he remained a member until 1994.”
“One of Abu Hamza’s first major engineering contracts took him to the Royal Military Training Academy at Sandhurst. Technical drawings of the college were still in his home when he was arrested in 2004.”
Hamza is an intelligent man, though he mightn’t look it, it can be useful. He’s someone MI5 might well have recruited as an agent.