Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 June 2004
Issue No. 693
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Imam's come-uppance

The arrest of Abu Hamza El-Masri and his expected extradition to the US on terrorism charges is proving just as controversial as the man himself, writes Alistair Alexander

Click to view caption
Abu Hamza Al-Masri, facing camera centre, is watched by British police

According to one newspaper, residents in the West London Street where the militant Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza El-Masri, lives are divided about their notorious neighbour. One describes him as "unfailingly polite and courteous" and recalls that he even attended the local street party for the Queen's Golden Jubilee. But another neighbour darkly notes that Abu Hamza never turned up to Neighbourhood Watch meetings. No wonder Britain's The Sun newspaper branded him "Britain's Bin Laden".

Opinion within official British and US circles is also divided on Abu Hamza's activities. "Abu Hamza is the real deal," declared New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. British security sources, however, have frequently let it be known that they regard him as little more than "a clown". This stark difference of opinion won't worry the British government, who will be only too glad to see the back of Abu Hamza, whether the charges stand up or not.

Having led London's Finsbury Park Mosque since the early 1990s, Egyptian-born Abu Hamza El-Masri first gained national attention in Britain when his son and godson were among a group of young British Muslims jailed in Yemen for allegedly planning attacks on Western targets. He was linked soon after to the kidnapping of 18 Westerners in Yemen, four of whom were killed, by persons demanding the release of his son among others. With his inflammatory rhetoric and his hook instead of a right-hand, Abu Hamza was an irresistible target for Britain's tabloid press, always on the look out for figures to plausibly confirm their own prejudices. For his part, Abu Hamza revelled in his notoriety.

After 11 September, Abu Hamza's open support for the Al- Qaeda attacks inevitably became the subject of more media outrage. This was only heightened when it became clear that a string of British men linked with terrorist attacks had been regular visitors to Abu Hamza's mosque. Shoe bomber Richard Reid was one, as was Omar Sharif, who was involved in a suicide attack in Tel Aviv. Feroz Abbasi, one of the Britons still held at Guantanamo Bay, was also a follower of Abu Hamza.

For Britain's Home Secretary David Blunkett, Abu Hamza has been a source of near-constant discomfort. After Blunkett introduced draconian anti-terrorism legislation, the media has never missed an opportunity to cite Abu Hamza's continued presence in London as an example of the government's impotence. Unfortunately for Blunkett, however unsavoury Abu Hamza's views might be, hard evidence of his involvement in terrorism has been very scant indeed.

Britain's immigration service went to considerable lengths to annul the Egyptian-born Abu Hamza's British citizenship, hoping to demonstrate that the marriage through which he received his passport was one of convenience. But since that marriage produced a son -- currently languishing in a Yemeni jail -- that attempt came to nothing.

Early last year, police raided Abu Hamza's mosque having been "tipped off" that a cache of weapons was being stored there. No firearms charges have been forthcoming, however. Since then Abu Hamza has been banned from the mosque, but he continues to lead prayers in the street outside, masterfully exploiting the campaign against him.

US demands for Abu Hamza's extradition were sure to have been received with great enthusiasm by the British government. But while the extradition might solve one problem, it creates many others.

The US indictment against Abu Hamza alleges the cleric tried to set up a terrorist camp in the US; that he organised the Yemen kidnapping and that he arranged for Britons to go to Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The evidence apparently comes from transcripts of telephone calls from Abu Hamza to Yemen. Testimony has also been provided by James Ujaama, a former worshipper at Abu Hamza's mosque who received a reduced sentence in the US in return for evidence. Ujaama was released the day Abu Hamza was arrested.

So if this evidence exists, why was he not charged in Britain? Telephone intercepts are not admissible in a British court, says Blunkett, although he hopes to change that soon with yet more anti-terrorism legislation. Yet while Abu Hamza appears to have many dubious connections with Islamic extremism, his media profile probably precludes him from being of any use to terrorists, even if he wanted to be. Many suspect that MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency, preferred him to be free so they could keep a close eye on his followers.

The process for actually extraditing Abu Hamza is likely to be lengthy, with an inevitable challenge by Abu Hamza's lawyers. A number of extradition cases to the US have fallen recently due to lack of evidence. Furthermore, the proceedings against Abu Hamza are the first under a new "fast track" extradition agreement between the US and UK. Under the new rules, the burden of proof on the US to secure an extradition is far lower and US authorities can effectively bypass the usual diplomatic channels.

Much to the disgust of British lawyers, however, the "fast track" appears to be only one way. For British authorities pressing for extradition from the US, the long-standing and slow extradition procedures still apply. It is another example of the increasingly obvious asymmetry in the so- called "special" relationship between Britain and the US.

A more significant concern for Blunkett is the prospect that if found guilty of the charges brought against him, Abu Hamza could be executed. Blunkett insists he has a written agreement from the US government that the death penalty will not be invoked. But international lawyers say this would count for nothing. Indeed, US Attorney General John Ashcroft made it clear that Abu Hamza could face the death penalty. In Britain, where the death penalty was abolished decades ago, such a sentence would be politically disastrous. But that would be a long way in the future. For now the government will hope that for the foreseeable future Abu Hamza will be appearing before judges more often than on newspaper front pages.

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