THE BLOG
05/21/2014 09:46 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hamza

To have watched the terrorism trial of Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, the radical imam better known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, was to have seen two faces of the same man.

In the prosecution's depiction, Abu Hamza was a recruiter and confidante of terrorists trained to kill non-Muslims, an imam whose speeches fomented violence and who sided with al Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamist rebels in Yemen, in a global war for hearts and minds.

In the defense's tale, Abu Hamza was a learned family man who cared deeply about oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, and often backed the same side as the United States and NATO. His attorneys described Abu Hamza as a mediator and peacemaker who sometimes assisted the intelligence service in his adopted home country, England, where he emigrated from Egypt in 1979 at the age of 21.

Could both diametrically opposed visions of this man be true?

"Don't be fooled," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cronan admonished the jury at the end of the trial. "He made his choices. He shouldn't be allowed to run away from them."

A multi-racial jury of eight men and four women did not let him run. On Monday, after only 11 hours of deliberations spanning two days, the panel found Abu Hamza guilty of all 11 counts of terrorism-related offenses for pre-9/11 conduct while he was the head of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London starting in 1997.

The jury had sat through four weeks of testimony, including three full days of hearing a soft-spoken, even somber Abu Hamza testify in his own behalf in fluent English. The gray-haired imam mentioned his nine children and four grandchildren. He choked up twice recalling the 1995 Serb massacre of eight thousand Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. He had a copy of the Encyclopedia of Jihad with its instructions on poisoning and bomb making in his London study, but it sat on a top shelf with books he never read.

The government's case had three parts. First and foremost was the allegation that in the fall of 1999 Abu Hamza conspired with followers, including members of a Seattle mosque, to establish a terrorist training camp on U.S. soil. Even though the rural Bly, Oregon, camp never really got off the ground prosecutors said Abu Hamza backed it by dispatching two aides from London to assist the effort.

Second, prosecutors alleged in 2000 and 2001, Abu Hamza sent another follower to Afghanistan to train to fight with the Taliban and al Qaeda. That man, one-time mosque security guard Feroz Abassi, later wound up in Guantanamo for three years, but the U.S. military accusations against him were never proven.

The pivotal player in both the Oregon and Afghanistan accusations was James Ujaama, a Seattle man who pleaded guilty to criminal charges in 2003, served six years in prison, and is a cooperating government witness. Prosecutors said Ujaama escorted Abassi to Pakistan, the gateway to Afghanistan, at Abu Hamza's behest.

Third, prosecutors alleged Abu Hamza supported a December 1998 kidnapping of 16 Western tourists in Yemen. The 24-hour standoff ended in a firefight between the kidnappers and Yemen soldiers. Three British tourists and one Australian tourist died. Two American survivors testified about their ordeal, and one of them, Mary Quin, spoke about her tape-recorded confrontation with Abu Hamza two years later.

Abu Hamza's reputation and perceived international influence elevated him into the pantheon of jihadist leaders of the past two decades -- from Egyptian Omar Abdel Rahman ("the blind sheikh"), who inspired the 1993 World Trade Center truck bombing, and subsequent plots on New York landmarks, to Saudi al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, to U.S.-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a friend of 9/11 hijackers and inspiration to post-9/11 bad actors like Fort Hood mass shooter, Nidal Hasan.

Among Abu Hamza's rogues' gallery of congregants in "Londonistan" were al Qaeda-trained shoe bombers Richard Reid and Saajid Badat. Another mosque attendee when he lived in London was French-Moroccan 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Abu Hazma told the jury he never met any of these men.

Before Abu Hamza took over at Finsbury Park, he had lost both of his hands and sight in one eye. During the trial, he said his injuries resulted from a 1993 road building accident in Lahore, Pakistan, in his previous life an engineer. This testimony defied the myth that his handicap resulted from fighting with Afghan mujahideen (holy warriors) against Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

At the defense table, Abu Hamza was allowed one prosthetic hand with metal fingers to take notes. Unlike most criminal defendants, he didn't dress up in a suit for court. He wore his jailhouse sweatpants and a dark blue t-shirt exposing his stumps below the elbow.

His video trail from speeches and interviews was extensive and could not have made a good impression with the jury -- praising the U.S.S. Cole bombing in Aden, Yemen, that killed 17 American sailors ("I agree with it"), bin Laden ("I would call him a reformer...a good-hearted person") and 9/11 ("Everybody was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center"). He had called terrorism a "weapon" to use on "Allah's enemies" and discussed slitting the throats of kaffirs (non-believers).

"You just cut and paste," Abu Hamza complained to prosecutor Cronan during cross examination about the government's selective excerpting. But on the witness stand, Abu Hamza repeated his unvarnished opinions on the Cole attack ("I praised it"), on bin Laden ("People love him, including myself"), and on a 9/11 as an inside job ("Who demolished this building as a pretext for war?").

Defense attorney Jeremy Schneider had told the jury the trial was "about getting past the words and looking at the deeds."

After the verdict, his co-counsel, Joshua Dratel, told reporters the short deliberations "confirmed our fears" about the "volume" of Abu Hamza's sermons and statements "overwhelming" the rest of the evidence.

In his testimony, Abu Hamza admitted agreeing to be a spokesman for the group behind the Yemen kidnapping but denied playing a coordinating role in the attack.

"Innocent people are not to be touched," he testified. "This is frequently in my preaching over the years."

Prosecutors focused on a satellite phone Abu Hamza purchased that ended up in the kidnappers' hands, and its phone records revealed they made three calls to him on the eve of the kidnapping, and another call five hours into the incident.

When surviving hostage Quin met Abu Hamza at his mosque in 2000, he told her, "We never thought it would be that bad." Emphasis on the "we," prosecutors said, offering this motive: Abu Hamza's stepson had been arrested in Yemen five days before the hostage taking. Not once did Abu Hamza express remorse to Quin.

When it came to the Oregon training camp and the men behind it, Assistant United States Attorney Ian McGinley pointed to Abu Hamza during closing arguments and told the jury: "He was the boss."

A key piece of evidence in the Oregon terror camp conspiracy was an October 1999 fax Ujaama sent to Abu Hamza detailing a bucolic, isolated setting in rural Bly and boasting of gun stockpiles and groups of men willing to be trained for travel to Afghanistan, which Ujaama claimed, the rugged grounds resembled.

"We are expecting the two brothers we discussed," Ujaama wrote, referring to Abu Hamza followers Oussama Kassir and Haroon Aswat, who arrived a month later.

"I threw it in the rubbish bin. It completely disappeared from my mind," Abu Hamza testified about the fax. "I never thought about that training camp."

He called Ujaama's vision a "hallucination" and said Kassir ("He's a troublemaker") fished the fax out of the trash, took matters into his own hands, and told him he was going to the U.S. for vacation and bringing Aswat to find a wife.

"That is unbelievable and absurd," countered prosecutor McGinley in his closing argument. "Over and over again he said, 'Train, train, you must; it's a religious obligation.'"

It turned out British intelligence officers monitoring Abu Hamza's communications had intercepted the incoming Ujaama fax and gave it to the FBI, sparking the whole Bly probe.

"I always looked at Ujaama as a dreamer. He had big ambitions for himself, and he could get people to buy in, but he couldn't follow through," former Seattle FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Charles Mandigo told me last week. "The danger was he might inspire other people to do something. I don't think Ujaama was a bomb thrower, but he might inspire others to be bomb throwers."

Besides the presence of the pair of visitors from Abu Hamza's mosque, Mandigo said, "There was no other nexus to known terrorists at the time."

Why did the government only now prosecute a man for 15-year-old events? The U.S. attempted to nab Abu Hamza as early as 2002 and indicted him in 2004. However, the U.K. had its own case against him, for inciting murder in his inflammatory sermons, convicted him, and imprisoned him for seven years. Abu Hamza fought extradition the whole time in U.K. custody. The time from Abu Hamza's October 2012 arrival in the U.S. to the conclusion of his civilian trial was 19 months.

The relatively speedy trial, certainly compared to the legal logjam for foreign terror suspects at Guantanamo, is the norm for civilian courts. Just two months ago, another jury in Manhattan federal court convicted former al Qaeda propagandist Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti imam, for aiding al Qaeda. His path from U.S. custody to conviction was 13 months.

The U.S. killed bin Laden and al-Awlaki in 2011 military operations and successfully prosecuted Abdel Rahman in 1995, incarcerating him for life. The U.S. seeks no less punishment for the 56-year-old Abu Hamza.

"There would be no uprising in the street if he's found guilty," defense attorney Schneider told the jury even while arguing for Abu Hamza's acquittal. "It would be another al Qaeda-loving, Taliban-supporting, anti-American government preacher, another one down."

And so it is. U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest scheduled Abu Hamza's sentencing for September 9.

"The defendant stands convicted, not for what he said, but for what he did," the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said in a written statement after the verdict. "Once again, our civilian system of justice has proven itself up to the task of trying an accused terrorist and arriving at a fair and just and swift result."

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