Yemen Hostage Victim Testifies Against Imam
MANHATTAN (CN) - Limping into court, a former hostage wounded when Yemeni soldiers rescued her more than 15 years ago in the desert delivered dramatic testimony Tuesday against the radical London preacher accused of aiding her captors.
Imam Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, is charged with giving Yemeni hostage-takers the satellite phone that they used during the 1998 kidnapping of 16 British and U.S. tourists, four of whom were killed.
Margaret Thompson, one of two U.S. hostages, testified that two of the dead lay near her feet as a helicopter whisked her away from the scene to treat a bullet wound that shattered her leg. She said she had been on vacation to avoid wasting travel hours she had accrued at work. Yemen had been the only destination she had not already visited of those offered by her travel group Explore.
Thompson described how her group circled around most of the country for a two-week trip before approaching Aden, a seaport city whose name jurors have come to recognize.
Minutes before her testimony, prosecutors flashed a screenshot of a communique from Abu Hamza and his London-based group Supporters of Sharia (S.O.S.) that said, "Supporting the Army of Aden is an obligation for those seeking Gardens of Eden," referring to paradise.
It warned "all the infidels to leave the region," or to seek protection from the "Emir of Jihad."
Thompson said she never heard of Abu Hamza, S.O.S., or that warning, and that she had been in the back seat of the car taking her smaller group when she saw a pick-up truck with a machine gun on a tripod pass them.
Eventually a group of roughly 20 men ambushed the car, put the driver on the roof, and replaced him behind the wheel, she said.
"We were very quiet," Thompson said. "We were very still. We were looking at each other out of the corner of our eyes. There was no conversation."
The driver drove the group to a pair of trees, she said, as prosecutors flashed a picture of that spot for the courtroom.
The kidnappers then forced the members of the group to find and turn over their passports one by one, taking particular interest in U.S. citizens. She also recalled being watched over by three men: a leader, a translator, and a man playing with a hand grenade.
"You know why you're here?" the leader asked, according to her testimony.
"No, we don't," she recounted saying.
The leader allegedly told her group, "It's not your fault that your countries bombed Iraq," referring to a 1998 attack, and added, "We have friends in prison and we're going to keep you until they're released."
In early 1999, the BBC reported that Abu Hamza's eldest son was convicted of a bomb plot in Yemen. Multiple trial witnesses have testified about conversations that they had with Abu Hamza and others alluding to this incident, but none have delved into detail about these events.
Thompson said the kidnappers repeatedly threatened to kill members of the group.
One of the men said, "It's good-bye to you," she testified.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Kim asked what she thought that meant.
"I hoped it meant that they were going to release us," she replied. "But I feared it meant we were going to die."
A fellow hostage, Catherine, got thrown on the ground and told to sleep when the kidnapper fired upon the sandy ground around her; another, Ruth Williamson, got pulled by the neck of her shirt with a rifle pointed at her back, she testified.
Hearing the sound of gunfire, Thompson said, "I was hit in the leg with a bullet from behind."
She said that she dressed the wound with her scarf, and then she saw the military berets of Yemeni soldiers appear over the berm of the sand. She said she was eventually sent to a hospital in London that put a titanium rod in her femur.
Thompson offered no testimony directly tying Abu Hamza to the attack that she survived, but a British telephone worker took her place on the witness stand later that afternoon to clarify that link.
Nera Ltd. employee Paul Sykes vividly remembered Abu Hamza as a problem customer whom he sold a pre-paid phone more than a decade ago.
"He would always want to speak to me," Sykles said, explaining his keen memory. "It was a slightly irritating thing."
His interactions with the imam also had thorough documentation in company records bearing the names "M. K. Mustafa" and "Abu Hamza." Sykes also read telephone records showing calls from the satellite phone to Abu Hamza's personal phone, which became more frequent during the lead-up to and the day of the kidnappings. A receipt showed that he bought 500 British pounds worth of minutes during the day of the abduction.
The London police force Scotland Yard perused that documentation, Sykes testified.
Though British prosecutors never charged Abu Hamza in connection with the plot, they did convict him of hate-speech crimes before his extradition to the U.S. to face various terrorism-related charges. Abu Hamza is also accused of setting up a training camp in Bly, Ore., and of recruiting men to fight with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
He denies the charges and insists that his phone calls with the kidnappers were aimed to diffuse the Yemeni crisis rather than aid it.
Prosecutors hope to undermine that position with testimony by another U.S. survivor, Mary Quin, who escaped her captors, fled across the desert, and confronted Mustafa at London's Finsbury Park mosque. She recorded an hour-long conversation with him that will be played in court Wednesday.
The defense case is expected to kick off after that with Abu Hamza taking the stand.