LONDON – He’s reviled as the one-eyed, hook-handed terror suspect so troublesome that even Queen Elizabeth II reportedly felt moved to wonder why he remained at liberty despite his fiery call for a jihad, or holy war.
Britain is now set to extradite its most recognizable extremist – Mustafa Kamal Mustafa, who is better known as Abu Hamza al-Masri – to the United States, where he will face terrorism charges, including allegedly helping set up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon.
“This is a person who has been a blight on this country from more than a decade,” said Robin Simcox, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign-affairs think tank. “I don’t think there will be many people shedding a tear.”
It’s been a long time coming: A European court decision Monday cleared the way for his extradition and that of four other terror suspects after an eight-year legal battle. He could be deported within weeks.
Britain’s tabloid newspapers ran unflattering photos of the familiar, gray-bearded cleric and expressed cheerful satisfaction Tuesday that the preacher known for his anti-Western sermons might be sent away to face the consequences for his virulent sermons. The Sun tabloid headlined “Off: The Hook. Hate-filled Hamza can be deported to the United States.” The Daily Express said, “Evil Hamza: At last we can kick him out.”
For years, the Egyptian-born former nightclub bouncer, who claimed he lost his eye and hands fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, used his base in north London’s Finsbury Park Mosque to persuade a young congregation to take up the cause of holy war. The mosque was once attended by both Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. A senior U.K. terrorism official described the mosque as a “honeypot for extremists.”
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the cleric declared that, “many people will be happy, jumping up and down at this moment.”
When authorities raided the mosque, he simply moved outside, holding his sermons on the street, castigating Britain and calling for holy war.
The national frustration apparently rose to the head of state – the monarch – whose views are rarely given a public airing. Buckingham Palace refused to comment on a BBC report by security correspondent Frank Gardner, who said he had spoken with the queen and that she had mentioned that she told the senior government official in charge of law and order that she had been upset there was no way to arrest the preacher of hate.
“This is a conversation we had a little while ago and she did say that she had mentioned to – I don’t know which home secretary it was at the time – that was there not some law he had broken?” Gardner told the Today program. “I wouldn’t say she was necessarily lobbying, that’s not for me to say, but like anybody she was upset that her country and her subjects had been denigrated by this man who was using this country as a platform for his very violent, hateful views.”
Though the BBC apologized later for the breach of her confidence, the sentiment was clear.
The cleric and four others fought extradition, claiming the prospect of solitary confinement in one of America’s “supermax” high-security jails and the potential for life without parole would breach a European ban on “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” His lawyers had questioned U.S. assurances that he would not be mistreated or face the death penalty if convicted. Under European law, Britain cannot extradite suspects to countries where they might be executed.
But the case has often been cited by critics who point to flaws in the extradition system.
“It shows how a persistent litigant can spin these things out,” said David Bentley, an expert on extradition and an associate fellow at Chatham House.
American officials allege that the cleric conspired to establish a training camp in Bly, Oregon, to give his followers combat and weapons training for violent jihad in Afghanistan. They also say he helped extremists who kidnapped 16 foreign tourists, including two Americans, in Yemen in 1998. Three British tourists and one Australian visitor were killed in a shootout between Yemeni security forces and the captors.
Britain first made legal moves to extradite the cleric to Yemen in 2003, but his lawyers appealed against the move. He was arrested on the U.S. warrant in 2004, but lost several British court cases in his fight against extradition before taking the case to the European court in 2008.
He is currently serving a seven-year prison term in Britain for separate charges of inciting hatred.
The other four suspects due to be extradited to the U.S. are Babar Ahmad, Syed Tahla Ahsan, Khaled al-Fawwaz and Adel Abdul Bary.
The cleric had appealed on the grounds that too much time had passed since the alleged offenses to guarantee a fair trial; that some evidence could have been obtained by torture; and that he might be tortured or mistreated in the United States.
The European Court of Human Rights judges ruled that none of the material relied on by U.S. authorities “carries anything of the smell of the torture chamber sufficient to require its exclusion in a trial in this country.”