LONDON (Reuters) - With a metal hook in place of his right hand and missing an eye, Abu Hamza al-Masri’s tabloid image as a James Bond villain belies a much more sinister influence.
From Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the September 11 conspirators, and convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid, to the men who plotted suicide bomb attacks on London in 2005, Hamza is accused of influencing some of the world’s most high-profile militants of recent times.
Such was his notoriety, British police said the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London which he ran from the late 1990s until 2003 acted as a hotbed of extremism and a global magnet for militants.
On Tuesday, eight years after Hamza was first arrested by British police on a U.S. extradition warrant, European judges ruled he and five others can be sent to the United States to face terrorism charges.
Behind the fiery rhetoric and his much ridiculed image, British authorities said he was someone with a serious, extremist agenda.
“He was believed by the British police and security services to be a very important inspiration and certainly a linking figure,” said Professor Michael Clarke, the Director of the Royal United Services Institute and a government adviser on security issues.
At the time of his arrest, security sources cautioned that the media had mistakenly caricatured him as a buffoon.
Born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, 53-year-old Hamza came to Britain as an engineering student at the end of the 1970s, married a British woman and even worked as a doorman at discos in London.
He lost an eye and both hands while living in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He said this was carrying out humanitarian work while the authorities say it was fighting for the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union.
He rose to prominence with the inflammatory speeches he delivered at the Finsbury Park Mosque just at the time when the British capital became a safe haven in the West for dissident Muslims during the 1990s.
As Hamza’s influence grew, foreign intelligence agencies despaired of Britain’s approach, giving the capital the nickname “Londonistan”.
In the wake of al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks on Washington and New York, Hamza was thrust into the media spotlight as the embodiment of outspoken Arab “preachers of hate” who had been calling for holy war against the West.
He held meetings celebrating the attacks, praised al Qaeda’s now dead leader Osama bin Laden, and urged his followers to kill anyone involved in military action against Muslims.
The fiery statements provoked fury from the public and the media, who wanted to know why their bete noire was not being arrested or thrown out of the country. “Hook Off, Hooky” and “Sling Your Hook” became regular headlines.
The authorities finally acted, ousting him from Finsbury Park mosque in 2003, leaving him to deliver sermons on the street under the watchful eye of the police.
Dozens of worshippers arriving at the mosque on Tuesday were reluctant to talk about Hamza or his legacy, saying he was not really a topic of discussion.
“People who are not Muslims think anyone who came into the mosque were extremists,” Youba Sidali, 30, told Reuters. “I think Abu Hamza doesn’t represent Muslims.”
That was a view echoed by the Muslim Association of Britain, which said Hamza’s opinions were supported by very few Muslims.
“Abu Hamza’s views do not represent the majority of British Muslims - his very extreme views are only held by a very small minority of British Muslims,” Omer El-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association, told Reuters.
After being held on the U.S. extradition warrant, he was jailed for seven years by a British court in 2006 for inciting Muslims to kill Jews and non-believers, based on extracts of speeches he had given years earlier.
“Not only did he repeatedly advocate that Muslims should kill non-believers, he set out to persuade his listeners that it was part of their religious duty to do so,” prosecutors said.
Hamza was indicted by a federal grand jury in new York in April 2004. He was accused of involvement in a 1998 hostage taking in Yemen which resulted in the deaths of four hostages - three Britons and one Australian.
He was also accused of providing material support to al Qaeda by trying to set up a training camp for fighters in Oregon and of trying to organize support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
However RUSI’s Clarke said Britain had only taken action because of U.S. pressure, and the British would have been content to keep him out in the open where he could be monitored.
“The British were reluctant to bring charges against him until the Americans pressed them to do so,” he said.
Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood