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Fiery British Imam Found Guilty Of Terrorism Charges


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In New York, a jury has found a British imam guilty on 11 counts of terrorism. Abu Hamza al-Masri was a fiery speaker at a London mosque and he's seen as an inspiration to people who later became familiar names in terror cases. People like attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid, who visited that mosque. Now, after a relatively quick trial, he's been found guilty, like several of his followers before him.

NPR's national security editor Bruce Auster joins us now to talk about that case. And Bruce, just to start, what were the key charges against Abu Hamza?

BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: Well, as you say, he was found guilty on all 11 counts. And the case centered around something that happened back in 1998, in Yemen. And at that time, a group of militants there kidnapped 16 Western tourists and in a rescue attempt four of them were killed.

Now, prosecutors argued in this case argued that Abu Hamza had provided a satellite phone and advice to those militants. They had phone records as evidence that the chief kidnapper used the phone to call al-Masri and that they actually spoke for seven minutes.

Now there were two other key charges in the case. One was that he had sent two supporters to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon and also that he sent someone to Afghanistan to help al-Qaida and the Taliban. And for all of that, now that's he's convicted, he faces life in prison.

CORNISH: And Bruce, what had been his defense?

AUSTER: His lawyers said that he wasn't part of any terrorist conspiracy and that he was really being prosecuted not for what he did but for what he said, the sermons he gave at the mosque in London.

CORNISH: And he had gained fame at that London mosque, but what exactly did he do there? I mean, what was his style?

AUSTER: Well, this was the Finsbury mosque, very famous. He was there originally in about 1997, so this is four years before 9/11. Now he was born in Egypt. He actually went to London and became a nightclub bouncer, but he ended up at the mosque and he became this sort of fiery extremist the part of the extremist will rally people. He looked the part, you know, he was missing two hands, he had a glass eye and there was this sense of battlefield credibility. The idea was that he had gained his injuries while in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

AUSTER: So he gave most of the sermons there. And, for example, a year after 9/11, he organized a conference praising the hijackers. And it's important, he preached often in English and this is a key development in the recruitment of jihadists, of extremists because he was reaching beyond the normal range of people who al-Qaida might have gotten and got to people who were already Westerners.

He gained fame in large part because of all the people who came through there. It's people like, as mentioned, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. The U.S. wanted to charge him; it took eight years for him to be extradited here.

CORNISH: And Bruce, much has been made of having these trials in federal courts. As we mentioned, Abu Hamza was tried in New York. How significant was this case?

AUSTER: It is significant because there is this ongoing debate about whether or not the courts - the federal courts - are best place for terrorism trials or whether it's better to use military commissions, the kind of proceeding that takes place at Guantanamo Bay.

Now this becomes the second high-profile case just this year. Osama bin Laden's son-in-law was convicted earlier and there's one more case is still to come.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security editor Bruce Auster on the conviction today of British cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. Bruce, thank you.

AUSTER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bruce Auster is NPR's Senior Director for the Collaborative Journalism Network. He is at the center of an effort to transform the public radio system and establish a new way for NPR and the newsrooms of hundreds of NPR Member Stations to work together.