Accused Imam Denies Knowledge of 1998 Plot
MANHATTAN (CN) - Though he denied having any advanced knowledge of a 1998 abduction in Yemen, the double-amputee imam admitted Monday that he gave militants the satellite phone used in that attack.
The hostage-takers snatched 16 British and U.S. tourists, four of whom were killed.
Radical preacher Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Hamza al-Masri, is now standing trial a decade and a half later for his alleged role in that attack and two unrelated plots from that era.
The British government failed to prosecute Mustafa in connection with the Yemen kidnapping when it convicted him of hate-speech crimes in 2004. He remained incarcerated in a London prison until his extradition to New York to face terrorism-related charges.
U.S. prosecutors had said Mustafa "walked the walk" of religious-inspired violence while his defense attorneys paint him as a imam who used extremist rhetoric to de-escalate violent situations.
Mustafa's lawyer ended three days of direct examination today by asking his client to define his "motto" on Monday.
"The harshest of all talks is better than the easiest of all wars," Mustafa replied.
The accused terrorist did acknowledge minutes earlier, however, that he sought to "topple" Middle Eastern leaders.
"You can say my rhetoric goes West, my action goes East," he said.
Earlier in the day, Mustafa acknowledged being a "mouthpiece" for militants seeking the overthrow of their government in the south of Yemen, before that country was unified. He testified that he played a similar role a year earlier in Algeria but supposedly then had a falling out with that group over their attacks on civilians.
"All I was trying to do in Yemen was to avoid the mistakes of Algeria," he said.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, claim that Yemen was incarcerating Mustafa's son and step-son at the time, and that Mustafa helped target civilians to exchange for them.
Mustafa does not deny that the chief kidnapper, Abu Hassan, used a prepaid satellite phone that was registered in Mustafa's name, nor that the two of them spoke during the abduction. He has also acknowledged buying an additional 500 British pounds worth of minutes on the day of the abduction.
Prosecutors proved all of these facts with a trail of phone records and receipts, but Mustafa claimed that his purchase of the satellite phone and the kidnapping itself predated his son's arrest in Yemen, which the BBC reported occurred in January 1999.
Likening himself as a "mouthpiece" to Irish republican politician Gerry Adams, a man who was arrested this year but never charged with a murder committed by the Irish Republican Army, Mustafa denied active involvement in the kidnapping plot. One of the former hostages undermined that position, however, by recording him years later speaking about the incident in the first person.
"[Abu Hassan] basically wanted to do a reaction to hurt the government and to hold people ransom until the government let my people go," Mustafa told kidnapping survivor Mary Quin in a recording played in court last week. "And he would let the people go. We never thought it would be that bad."
Last week, Quin delivered dramatic testimony recounting how she won a "tug of war" with one of her captors over an AK-47, ran across the desert to safety with the Yemeni military and then confronted Mustafa at his Finsbury Park mosque in London. She said that she taped their 45-minute chat, and then handed the recording to U.S. prosecutors to convict Mustafa of the key charge against him.
Playing down the use of personal pronouns as regional dialect, Mustafa insisted that he was speaking from Abu Hassan's point of view on the tapes.
"We, the Arabs, we use a lot of [personal] pronouns," he said.
Quin testified last week that Mustafa showed no remorse about his alleged involvement.
Defense attorney Joshua Dratel asked his client: "Do you regret that the people, four hostages, lost their lives?"
"Of course," Mustafa replied.
"Innocent people are not supposed to be touched," he added later. "You can see that in my preaching."
Mustafa also distanced himself from alleged plan to establish a militant training camp in Bly, Ore.
James Ujaama, who was convicted of supporting the Taliban, testified as a cooperating witness earlier at trial that he sent a fax about the project to Mustafa, who then sent him two of his congregants - Oussama Kassir and Haroun Aswat - to learn how shoot firearms there.
"The land that we spoke of is about 160 acres and looks just like Afghanistan with mountains and small trees, dry, hot and cold extreme temperatures," Ujaama wrote in the Oct. 25, 1999, fax. "It is 100 percent legal and so are all of our activities. The land is in a state that is a pro-militia and firearms state."
Mustafa claimed on Monday that he threw the fax in the trash.
"Once I threw it away in the rubbish bin, it completely disappeared from my mind," he said.
He said that he later learned Kassir fished it out and told him he was traveling to the United States to find a wife rather than get combat training. An Oregon jury subsequently convicted Kassir of terrorism-related offenses, and the European Court of Human Rights blocked the extradition of the schizophrenic Aswat.
Mustafa, meanwhile, blamed Ujaama for supposedly trying to give his congregation an anti-U.S. slant.
"He wanted to prove to all the Muslims that he's American, but he's anti-American," Mustafa said, referring to Ujaama.
During his testimony, Ujaama acknowledged that he started a website StopAmerica.org and wrote English-language press releases for Mustafa's group, Supporters of Sharia, praising Osama bin Laden's declaration of war against the United States.
"This is too much," Mustafa claimed he told Ujaama. "I do criticize the USA, but that is not the main thing.
Although Mustafa insists that he disagreed with al-Qaida, prosecutors have shown jurors videos of him praising their bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They are expected to press him on his inflammatory sermons and interviews as cross-examination begins on Tuesday.