To U.S. government prosecutors, British hate preacher Abu Hamza was a global exporter of terrorism. To his defense lawyers, the armless radical is guilty only of harboring unsavoury opinions.
A Manhattan federal court heard Thursday opening arguments in the trial of the 56-year-old Abu Hamza, accused of 11 kidnapping and terror charges that predate the 9/11 attacks.
Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known in Britain as Abu Hamza al-Masri, has pleaded not guilty but faces the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison if convicted.
He is blind in one eye and lost both arms, blown off above the elbow, in an explosion in Afghanistan years ago.
Prosecutor Edward Kim told the 12-member jury that Abu Hamza had “recruited” and “indoctrinated” men whom he dispatched from a mosque in north London to all around the world to wage war.
“He was a global exporter of violence and terrorism,” said Kim. “His goal was clear, simple, vicious... to wage war against non-Muslims,” Kim added.
Trainer of terrorists
“He was a trainer of terrorists and he used the cover of religion so he could hide in plain sight in London,” he said.
Dressed in a T-shirt and grey trousers, his hair and beard white, Abu Hamza closely followed Thursday’s proceedings in the courtroom, packed to bursting with reporters and observers.
It is the second high-profile terror trial heard in a Manhattan federal court after Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith was convicted on March 26.
The charges relate to the 1998 kidnapping in Yemen of 16 Western tourists, of whom four were killed, and conspiracy to set up an Al-Qaeda-style training camp in Oregon in late 1999.
He is also accused of providing material support to bin Laden’s terror network, of wanting to set up a computer lab for the Taliban and sending recruits for terror training in Afghanistan.
Kim said the Egyptian-born preacher sent two men to the United States to open the Oregon camp and liaised with the kidnappers in Yemen, providing them with advice and a satellite phone.
Two of these hostages are scheduled to testify, he said.
But the defense denied that Abu Hamza had dispatched anyone, and never himself traveled at the time to Yemen or the United States.
His “harsh” anti-US, anti-Israeli opinions may be unpalatable, but he has the right to express them, Joshua Dratel said.
“These are views, not acts. These are expressions, not crimes,” he told the court.
“He is not a member of Al-Qaeda, he didn’t belong to the Taliban, he is an independent,” added Dratel.
“You have to put yourself back,” he said conjuring up the Afghanistan of the 1980s where the US supported the jihad against the Soviets before “abandoning” the country.
He said Abu Hamza went to Afghanistan at the time to help provide schools and reconstruction.
“For decades, Nelson Mandela was considered as a terrorist,” he pointed out, referring to the late global rights icon who was convicted and imprisoned by the apartheid regime.
The trial is expected to last four or five weeks and marks the culmination of a 10-year legal battle.
He was first indicted in the United States in 2004 and served eight years in prison in Britain before losing his last appeal in the European Court of Human Rights against extradition.
Flown to the US in 2012, authorities lost no time removing his trademark prosthetic hook that he wore in the place of one hand.
The prosecution is expected to bring a large number of audio and video recordings, particularly of Abu Hamza’s speeches justifying terrorism in the name of God.
British terror convict Saajid Badat is also to testify by video link from Britain, as at the trial of Abu Ghaith last month.
Abu Hamza was arrested in August 2004 in Britain at Washington’s request, and sentenced in a British court to seven years in jail in 2006 for inciting murder and racial hatred.
He lost his final appeal to avoid extradition in October 2012 and was flown immediately to the United States.