Tense Grilling of Imam Ends Evidence Phase of NYC Terror Case
MANHATTAN (CN) - A prosecutor confronted a London imam about the incendiary sermons that led to his incarceration in England, as the evidence phase of the latest federal terrorism trial wrapped up Tuesday.
Imam Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known by his Arabic name Abu Hamza al-Masri, spent seven years in a London prison for incitement charges stemming from sermons praising the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and approving of the kidnapping and killing of non-Muslims.
The hate-speech offenses that led to his convictions in England would not have been considered crimes in the United States, and British authorities did not charge him with any violent conduct when they arrested him in 2004.
Prosecutors in New York suggest this was a mistake.
According to his federal indictment here, Mustafa helped out in the 1998 abduction of 16 British and U.S. tourists in Yemen, four of whom were killed. Mustafa also allegedly recruited men to enlist in U.S. and Afghan training camps to fight with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
For three days on the witness stand, Mustafa has denied these charges and asserted that he is being prosecuted for his radical opinions.
He claims he used extremist rhetoric to engage with would-be terrorists and discourage them from pursuing a violent path.
His attorneys claim that he regularly engaged with British intelligence agents at MI5 in this role, and they hoped to raise the argument that London prosecutors declined to charge him in connection with the Yemen plot.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that both those topics were irrelevant for the jury.
During cross-examination Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan scoffed at Mustafa's depiction of himself as a misunderstood moderate, by pointing out that a London jury convicted him of six counts of "soliciting murder."
Mustafa said those counts corresponded with "six tapes" of sermons he delivered.
"These incidents are not connected to any event in the galaxy," he insisted.
Cronan said, however, that Mustafa called Yemen's foreign visitors "dumb animals" and that "whoever imprisons them can do whatever they want with them" in an interview with Al Jazeera close to the time of the kidnapping.
Mustafa admits he supported the Yemeni group that committed the kidnapping, the Army of Aden, and its late leader Abu Hassan, for the London-based Supporters of Sharia.
The name "Abu Hamza" appeared on press releases warning tourists to stay away, and Mustafa admits he provided the satellite phone the kidnappers used to communicate with the international press and public.
However, Mustafa claims that he played no operational role as a "mouthpiece" for the group.
"You knew that the Islamic Army of Aden was trying to topple the government of Yemen?" Cronan asked.
"Yes, I did," he replied.
Mustafa said he viewed the military government's decades-long rule as "illegitimate," and that the militants opposing it had not been designated as a terrorist organization until 2002.
Although Mustafa claimed to have no advance knowledge of the abduction, Cronan noted that he received a call from its leader, Abu Hassan, less than 12 hours before it took place.
Mustafa testified that Abu Hassan talked to him about issuing a statement about the Yemeni government's raid on their members.
Prosecutors say Mustafa signed on to the abduction plot to pressure Yemen to release his son, stepson and other associates from prison.
His defense attorneys insist that the timeline of Mustafa's alleged involvement does not jibe with this theory. Phone records indicate that he bought the satellite phone used in the abduction in July 1998, predating the time that his children traveled to Yemen.
Cronan said that his stepson was arrested five days before the kidnapping, but Mustafa insisted that he learned of that arrest long afterward.
Mustafa also is charged with recruiting a former congregant at his Finsbury Park mosque, Feroz Abbasi, to go to Afghanistan to train at al-Qaida's al-Farouq training camp around 2000. Afghanistan's Northern Alliance picked up Abbasi two years later, and turned him over to U.S. troops, which sent him to the Navy prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Although the Pentagon released Abbasi without charges three years later, prosecutors continue to maintain that he was a dangerous man, and they hope to convict Mustafa of recruiting him to Afghanistan.
"He's like a son to me," Mustafa said, referring to Abbasi. "I'm like a father figure for the community."
"And he just left to be in Afghanistan to fight with al-Qaida without telling you?" Cronan asked.
That question rested on two assumptions that he denied, Mustafa replied.
"Try to concentrate," Mustafa scolded. "Ask one at a time, Mr. Cronan."
As the examination heated up, Judge Forrest repeatedly reminded Mustafa not to "make speeches" and to simply answer the question.
Cronan noted that a cooperating witness for the government, Saajid Badat, testified that he saw Abbasi at al-Qaida's al-Farouq training camp.
"Look, Mr. Badat is your witness, not my witness," Mustafa said.
Badat, who confessed to a "shoe-bomb" plot to destroy U.S. airliners, has earned the nickname "supergrass" in the British press, slang for a prolific government informant. He testified that Abbasi declined to participate in the militant activities of the camp and mostly remembered him driving a spade into dirt.
Another government witness, James Ujaama, said that he took Abbasi to Afghanistan on Mustafa's instructions, Cronan said.
"I have nothing to do with your pay-as-you-go witnesses," Mustafa said.
Ujaama also testified about his alleged plan to set up a camp in Bly, Ore., to train people to fight with the Taliban.
Mustafa on Monday denied sending two people there for training and downplayed it as a place for "riding horses and shooting trees like John Wayne."
The so-called "terror camp" fizzled out within months of its inception in late 1999, and three of the people connected to the aborted plan have been prosecuted, including Mustafa.
Although Mustafa denies supporting any terrorist organization, Cronan played videos of him openly praising multiple al-Qaida plots.
"Everybody was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center," Mustafa said in one interview broadcast on British television. "Anybody who tell [sic] you he was not happy, they are hypocrites, for the Muslim nation."
Distancing himself from that view on the witness stand, Mustafa said that he had been talking about the sentiment among some Muslims who opposed U.S. foreign policy.
"The feeling is something," he said. "The reality is something else."
His attorney Joshua Dratel tried to minimize such remarks on redirect.
Mustafa told his attorney: "There's no way that I said innocent people can be killed or harmless people can be killed in any form."
The parties will meet for closing arguments on Wednesday.