Terrorist trainer or opinionated cleric? Abu Hamza al-Masri's trial begins

Lawyers for radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri have said his mental health is failing.

Story highlights

  • Abu Hamza al-Masri stands trial on numerous terrorism-related charges
  • Al-Masri was one of the highest-profile radical Islamic figures in Britain
  • He is accused of conspiring to kidnap Americans in Yemen, open terror camp in Oregon
The federal trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a radical Islamic cleric accused of conspiring to kidnap Americans in Yemen and planning to establish a jihad training camp in rural Oregon, began in New York with opening statements on Thursday.
The prosecution described al-Masri as a terrorist trainer who hid behind religion. The defense portrayed him as a man who expressed strong opinions but did not participate in criminal acts.
The terror trial opened less than a month after Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was found guilty in the same federal courthouse of helping al Qaeda terrorists conspire to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists.
Federal prosecutors said Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric, played a crucial role as the organization's principal mouthpiece and recruiter, helping "restore al Qaeda's trove of new terrorists" as deadly missions turned its members into martyrs.
Al-Masri, who once called the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a "hero," pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of terrorism in 2012.
The fiery, one-eyed cleric stands trial in an American courtroom years after losing a lengthy legal battle to avoid extradition to the United States from Britain.
The charges against al-Masri include conspiracy in connection with the 1998 kidnapping of 16 Westerners in Yemen, and conspiring with others to establish an Islamic jihad training camp in rural Oregon in 1999.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutor Edward Kim told the jury that the defendant's "cause was war, and it was all consuming."
"He was a trainer, a terrorist, and he used the cover of religion so he could hide in plain sight in London," Kim said.
Weapons and gas masks were found at al-Masri's London mosque, the prosecutor said: "Tools of war stockpiled in a place of worship."
In Yemen, al-Masri allegedly gave the kidnappers satellite phones as well as instructions, Kim told the jury.
A year later, the defendant allegedly sent two men to Oregon to establish a training camp, providing them with money and instructions on throat-slitting, shooting and building silencers, Kim said. From London, one witness is expected to testify that he took an al Qaeda fighter to Afghanistan at the direction of al-Masri.
Defense lawyer Joshua Dratel, however, told the jury there was no evidence linking the cleric to the alleged crimes -- "not in Yemen, not in Oregon, not in Afghanistan."
Dratel said his client "never gave directions or orders to people" and served merely as a "commenter on events and issues."
"These are ideas, not acts," he said. "These are expressions, not crimes."
The weapons seized in the London mosque were found in a large building and never connected to the cleric, Dratel said. In the Yemen kidnappings, al-Masri was an intermediary trying to resolve the situation, the lawyer said.
Al-Masri wanted deliver his own opening statement, but District Judge Katherine Forrest rejected the request.
The prosecution's first witness was Angelica Morris, whose husband was an imam at a Seattle mosque where, she said, al-Masri was the "dominant ideological influence." She testified that in 1999, the couple visited a sprawling ranch in Oregon where mosque members practiced using assault rifles, shotguns and handguns. There also were throat-slitting demonstrations, she said.
Defense lawyer Jeremy Schneider sought to discredit the witness, suggesting that she had received money from investigators.
Al-Masri was one of the highest-profile radical Islamic figures in Britain, where he was already sentenced to seven years for inciting racial hatred at his north London mosque and other terrorism-related charges.
Born in Egypt in 1958, he traveled to Britain to study before gaining citizenship through marriage in the 1980s.
A one-time nightclub bouncer in London's Soho district, al-Masri -- also known as Mustafa Kamal Mustafa -- has said he lost both hands and one eye while fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He often wears a hook in place of his missing hand.
In 1997, al-Masri became the imam of a north London mosque, where his hate-filled speeches attacking the West began to attract national attention and followers. One of those followers was Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who attempted to blow up a Miami-bound passenger airplane three months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Al-Masri has called the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center "a towering day in history" and described bin Laden as "a good guy and a hero."
He also described the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 as "punishment from Allah" because the astronauts were Christian, Hindu and Jewish.