NEW YORK (Reuters) - James Ujaama thought he had found the perfect place to set up a jihadist training camp: a quiet ranch situated in a rural section of Oregon.
“The land that we spoke of is about 160 acres and looks just like Afghanistan,” Ujaama wrote in a fax in 1999 to his mentor, imam Abu Hamza al-Masri of the Finsbury Park mosque in London. He added that Oregon was a “pro-militia and fire-arms state” where it would be easy to stockpile weapons for combat training.
Ujaama testified on Wednesday at Abu Hamza’s trial in New York that a few weeks after that fax, two men arrived from the United Kingdom, saying they were sent by Abu Hamza to instruct recruits at the camp.
U.S. prosecutors hope those details will help convince a federal jury that the preacher is guilty of trying to set up the camp to aid al Qaeda. The charges against him carry a potential life sentence.
The one-eyed, handless Abu Hamza, 56, is also accused of supporting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and of providing assistance to militants who kidnapped 16 Western tourists in Yemen in 1998. Four of the hostages were killed during a rescue operation.
His lawyers have argued that Abu Hamza used inflammatory rhetoric but did not commit any crimes.
Ujaama, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to conspiring to aid the Taliban, appeared as part of a cooperation deal with prosecutors and is expected to remain on the witness stand for several days.
As a former associate of Abu Hamza, Ujaama is a key government witness. His testimony is expected to cover not only Oregon but the allegation that Abu Hamza sent a man to Afghanistan to receive military training with al Qaeda.
Ujaama said he first met the fiery preacher in London in 1998, shortly after returning from a trip to Afghanistan to attend training camps. The two men discussed Islamic teachings over tea and cookies at Abu Hamza’s second-floor office at the Finsbury Park mosque, Ujaama said.
“I walked away from that meeting very impressed with Sheikh Abu Hamza,” said Ujaama.
Soon after, Ujaama was working for Abu Hamza, writing and publishing articles online for an organization called Supporters of Sharia run by the preacher. One piece was entitled “A Declaration of War” that summarized Osama bin Laden’s call to take up arms against the United States, Ujaama said.
“Was Abu Hamza overseeing you when you posted this statement?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan.
“Yes, he was,” Ujaama replied.
He told jurors that Abu Hamza viewed violence as necessary in order to defend Muslim lives and honor and that he saw physical training for jihad as an obligation for all Muslim men.
In 1999, Ujaama said, the two men arrived in Oregon from the United Kingdom and were disappointed to find that Ujaama’s camp did not have many weapons or recruits. Ujaama said he was threatened by one of the men, Oussama Kassir, who claimed to be a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.
In the coming days, Ujaama is also expected to testify that Abu Hamza ordered him in 2000 to take another man, Feroz Abbasi, to Afghanistan to seek out training with al Qaeda.
The Egyptian-born Abu Hamza lost his hands and one eye in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He was convicted in the United Kingdom in 2006 of inciting followers to violence and served six years in prison before his extradition to the United States in 2012.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Gregorio