NEW YORK (Reuters) - From his perch as a prominent imam at a north London mosque, Abu Hamza al-Masri sent devoted followers around the world - from Oregon to Afghanistan - to pursue violent jihad against non-believers, a federal prosecutor told jurors in New York on Thursday.
“His goal was clear, it was simple, and it was vicious,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Kim said in Manhattan federal court at the start of Abu Hamza’s trial on terrorism-related charges. “Abu Hamza was not just a preacher of religion, he was a trainer of terrorists.”
Prosecutors accuse the one-eyed, handless cleric with trying to set up a jihadist training camp in Oregon; aiding militants who took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen in 1998 in an operation that ended with the deaths of three Britons and one Australian; and of providing material support to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But Joshua Dratel, Abu Hamza’s attorney, told jurors that while Abu Hamza may have been guilty of using inflammatory rhetoric, he had never participated in criminal activity.
“These are views, not acts,” he said. “This is expression, not crimes.”
The opening statements on Thursday drew a packed courtroom, including Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who watched from the back row.
Wearing a light blue shirt and gray pants, Abu Hamza held a pen in the prosthetic hook he uses on his right arm. He suffered his injuries in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Abu Hamza, who is using his birth name of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa during the trial, became known in London for his fiery sermons at the Finsbury Park mosque, where British authorities say he had contact with some of the world’s most well known militants.
They include Briton Richard Reid, who tried unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner in 2001 with a bomb hidden in his shoe, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to conspiring in the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States, according to British officials.
Kim told the jury on Thursday that Abu Hamza sent two men “on a mission” to Bly, Oregon, in 1999. One of the men carried with him instructions on how to manufacture deadly poisons and homemade explosives, Kim said.
Kim also said Abu Hamza sent men to Afghanistan to train with al Qaeda. Saajid Badat, a former al Qaeda associate who plotted with Reid before backing out, is expected to testify via live video feed from Britain that Abu Hamza sent him and another man to Afghanistan to wage jihad.
The jurors also will hear from one of the Yemen hostages who survived, Mary Quin, who interviewed Abu Hamza two years afterward for a book she wrote about her ordeal. She recorded him saying he provided the militants with a satellite phone and that the operation was justified, according to Kim.
Dratel, however, said Abu Hamza’s role in the kidnapping was that of a mediator, not a conspirator. He was brought in to help negotiate the release of the captives, Dratel said.
Dratel told the jury that Abu Hamza did not send anyone to help al Qaeda and was not involved in the effort to set up a training camp in Oregon. The cooperating witness who claims Abu Hamza sent the two men to Oregon, James Ujaama, is a “scammer” who is lying to secure a lighter prison sentence, Dratel said.
“You’re not here to judge his philosophy, his ideology,” he said of his client. “You’re here to judge the evidence.”
Abu Hamza will testify in his own defense, giving jurors a chance to see him for who he is, Dratel promised. Meanwhile, prosecutors plan to introduce recordings of Abu Hamza praising Osama bin Laden and harshly criticizing Jews and Christians.
Before the jury entered the courtroom, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest said she had received a handwritten letter from Abu Hamza that asked, among other things, for permission to deliver the opening statement himself.
Forrest denied that request, saying it could raise “Fifth Amendment issues.”
The trial is expected to last approximately one month.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder, David Gregorio and Tom Brown