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Abu Hamza: Controversial Muslim figure

Abu Hamza has continued to preach outside the Finsbury Park mosque.
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British and U.S. authorities view Abu Hamza al-Masri as a dangerous radical.
Abu Hamza

LONDON, England -- Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, the man arrested Thursday in London, is one of the most controversial Muslim figures in Britain.

A 47-year-old Egyptian-born engineer and former London nightclub bouncer, Abu Hamza is missing a hand and an eye -- injuries he says he sustained while tackling a landmine in Afghanistan.

Abu Hamza, who was detained on a U.S. extradition warrant Thursday, was banned from his Finsbury Park mosque in London's northern suburbs last year.

However, he has continued to preach on the pavement outside.

Police said the Finsbury Park mosque premises "have played a role in the recruitment of suspected terrorists and in supporting their activity both here and abroad."

Among those known to have worshipped at the mosque are alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker" of September 11.

Time magazine reported that the Finsbury Park mosque is notorious for the radicalism of its message and the number of suspected terrorists who have worshipped there.

Aub Hamza, leader of the Supporters of Sharia group, came to prominence in 1999 when five Britons of Pakistani origin were convicted in Yemen.

They were sentenced to between three and seven years for plotting to blow up targets in Aden including the British consulate, a church and a hotel.

Abu Hamza's teenage son and stepson were among those convicted and prosecutors said he had sent the group to Yemen. Abu Hamza denied this and the five insisted they had been tortured into signing confessions.

They were also accused of working with Islamic radicals who kidnapped 16 Westerners in December 1998. Four of the Westerners died in a shoot-out during a botched rescue attempt by Yemeni security forces.

After the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, Abu Hamza said the plane hijackers should be hailed as "martyrs" if it emerged they had carried out the attacks in the name of Islam.

He said: "I won't condone what has happened and I won't condemn it because I don't know who has done it yet.

"If somebody has done this just for earthly gain and political advancement, then obviously it is a cheap cause.

"But if it was done because people are desperate and their lives have been threatened, then that is a respectable cause which no one could dare to condemn.

"Then those people who carried out the attacks would be martyrs. Martyrdom is the highest form of jihad (holy war).

"If you do things for the cause of God, losing your life for it is the highest form of pure belief. This is in the Koran. America thinks that it comes first, but Muslims believe that a believer comes first."

He added: "When you damage a people, and they have no home and no hope, and their babies and children are killed, then they retaliate.

"America took decisions to give arms to certain people and take arms away from others. What happened yesterday would be self-defense."

Abu Hamza married a British woman and took British citizenship in 1981.

A hate figure in the British tabloid press, he has been fighting deportation by the UK government, which has accused him of advising and supporting terrorist groups.

In February 2003 the Charity Commission, which oversees places of worship in Britain, banned Abu Hamza from preaching at the Finsbury Park mosque after he said -- among other things -- that the crew who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster had been punished by Allah.

The British government revoked his 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 is not expected until January 10 next year.

At a hearing last month, a government lawyer said he had turned his mosque into a "safe haven for Islamic extremists" and provided "support and advice to terrorist groups" in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and Kashmir.

The lawyer said he had "encouraged and supported the participation of individuals in the physical acts of jihad, including fighting overseas and engaging in terrorist acts."

British court documents say tapes of bin Laden were on sale at his mosque.

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