Muslim cleric urges Jihad on West’s doorstep
By Michael Georgy
LONDON: The United States suspects a link to Al Qaeda and has frozen his assets. British intelligence keeps a close watch. Yemen wants him on terrorism charges.
Yet radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al Masri is not hiding with militant friends in a cave in Afghanistan. Instead, his calls for a holy war roar from a mosque in the bustling north London suburbs, far from his native Egypt.
Britain’s most controversial Islamist is a prime example of Al Qaeda’s growing global network of ideological foot soldiers who are frustrating Western intelligence agencies. Masri denies any formal links with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement. But he angers many by openly praising the network, raising suspicions while avoiding arrest.
“Groups are contacting me but this is not a crime. Like the Abyan (Islamic) Army, sometimes Al Qaeda, al-Jihad groups. They (Al Qaeda) contact many of their sympathisers,” Masri told interview with Reuters. “I have never been enrolled in any group. When they really dig into my past and my actions they won’t prove that I was helping anybody,” said the 44-year-old cleric as his bodyguard looked on. The United States and its allies have bombed Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and taken them to a prison camp in Cuba after the September 11 attacks on the United States.
But it’s hard to crack down on militants like Masri, even on their home turf in cosmopolitan London. “I have no doubt Masri has been a key Qaeda figure in Europe for years. These people are like fish in water. They are very hard to tackle. They have misused the system but the authorities cannot take them to court without having clear evidence,” said Hazhir Teimourian, a Middle East expert and writer on Islam. Masri denies he is a member of Al Qaeda, but describes himself as an admirer of the group.
Bouncer turned militant: Masri, a former night club bouncer, is suspected of having links with a number of controversial figures with alleged connections to Al Qaeda. US federal prosecutors have alleged that James Ujaama, who has been arrested on accusations of trying to set up an Al Qaeda training camp in the United States, pledged his loyalty to Masri in London in 1997 and later attended Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan with a recommendation from Masri.
Masri has denied any wrongdoing but said that Ujaama had run his organisation’s website after meeting him at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London. Accused September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui also visited the mosque.
Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry) refuses to comment on Masri because he is a “security issue”. “All we can say is he is being monitored closely and if any individual has links to terrorism he will be arrested,” said a Home Office spokesman.
British police also declined comment on Masri, who says he was arrested in 1999 and held for five days on suspicion of links to terrorism. Governing Labour parliamentarian Andrew Dismore, who has raised Masri as an issue in the House of Commons, favours arrest, despite the difficulty in proving any wrongdoing.
“He has crossed the line on several occasions. He is wanted for terrorism in Yemen. But his Al Qaeda links are more difficult to prove. I believe he is a dangerous man and have no doubt he conducted weapons training at the mosque,” the member of parliament told Reuters. Masri denied weapons training had taken place at the mosque, saying western intelligence agencies planted such allegations to tarnish his reputation.
Tight surveillance: Britain is reported to have arrested Abu Qatada, a Muslim cleric suspected of being a top Al Qaeda figure in Europe, who Masri describes as a fellow Al Qaeda sympathiser.
But Masri, a British passport holder, doesn’t seem worried about arrest, despite tight surveillance by intelligence agents and sweeping new anti-terror laws imposed after September 11.
He has said publicly that British politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, risked revenge attacks for “warmongering” against Islam. On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Masri hosted a seminar at his mosque called “A Towering Day in History” which concluded that bin Laden was a hero.
“I do agree with many of their (Al Qaeda’s) ideas and I do have respect for some of their members and other groups as well,” he said.
Masri thinks his enemies are just stirring up trouble.
“I am always approached by people suggesting things which I think only a spy could come up with. You find people who come and suggest planting bombs. This is part of the American and British plot against people whom they do not have cases against,” he said.
Although he said his support for militant groups is strictly ideological, Masri’s turbulent past has cost him both his arms and an eye. They were blown off in Afghanistan, where he met Ayman al Zawahri, bin Laden’s top aide.
“He is a very good person, basically we exchanged ideas. I think he is a very good and sincere person from a good family,” said Masri. As he recalled his days as a doorman at London discos scanning eager crowds of revellers, Masri’s anger spilled over.
“You start thinking — is this modern civilisation where wives are deceiving their husbands and husbands are deceiving their wives and theree’s homosexuality and drugs? It was a really evil and awful kind of environment and I decided to repent,” he said.
Masri now prefers to spend his time on the Internet, answering 200 e-mails a day on Islam or organising conferences in secret locations across Britain.
Although he believes the September 11 attackers were justified, he said groups such as Al Qaeda should focus now on deposing Arab leaders and installing strict Islamic states. —Reuters