Abu Hamza arrested

The arrest last month of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery Egyptian-born preacher who spent seven years proclaiming jihad from Finsbury Park mosque in London, was greeted by the popular press on both sides of the Atlantic with jubilation.

"Fantastic!" said the British Daily Star, while the New York Daily News described him as a "top al-Qaeda operative" who had "spewed his bile for years". 

With a straggly beard, one eye, and a metal hook in place of a hand, Abu Hamza fits the popular stereotype of a fearsome Islamic militant - an image that he himself has done little to discourage, as when he suggested that the September 11 hijackers were "martyrs".

While his activities in Britain have done much to fuel anti-Muslim prejudice, there are many who doubt that he is actually a menace to security: such a caricature figure cannot be taken seriously, they say.

The US authorities, though, have other ideas. They are seeking to extradite him from Britain on terrorism charges that potentially carry the death penalty.

The allegations against him include conspiring to take hostages in Yemen in 1998, conspiring to hold a military-style camp in Oregon between October 1999 and April 2000 to train people for jihad in Afghanistan, and providing money in connection with training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

His role in the Yemen kidnapping is well known and was reported in MEI at the time. Towards the end of 1998, 10 young Muslims from Britain travelled to Yemen. All had links to Abu Hamza 's Supporters of Sharia organisation and they included his 16-year-old son and 18-year-old stepson. 

Once in Yemen, they made contact with the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, a militant group regarded as a local affiliate of al-Qaeda, which ran a training camp in a remote part of the country.

The young men, according to the Yemeni authorities, were planning a series of Christmas Day attacks on targets in Aden - the Anglican church, a restaurant popular with foreigners, and a top-class hotel - but the plan failed when six of them were arrested.

The Islamic Army responded by kidnapping a party of 16 western tourists (12 Britons, two Australians, two Americans, plus four Yemeni drivers) in the hope of exchanging them for the arrested men.

About an hour after the kidnapping, the leader of the Islamic Army, a 32-year-old Afghan war veteran known as Abu al-Hassan, used a satellite phone to call Abu Hamza in London and discuss the kidnapping. Abu Hamza admits that he received the call. According to the US, Abu Hamza also received three calls from the satellite phone on the day before the kidnapping. In addition, the Americans say that Abu Hamza provided the Islamic Army with its phone and paid £500 in advance towards the cost of calls.

The kidnap ended disastrously when four of the hostages and two of the kidnappers died during a rescue by the Yemeni army. Abu al-Hassan was arrested and later executed.

Britain has turned down Yemeni requests to hand over Abu Hamza for trial, citing British and EU policy of not extraditing people to countries where they could face the death penalty, though there are probably also concerns about the judicial standards in Yemeni courts.

The fact that he has not been prosecuted in Britain for the kidnapping has led some to suggest that the British authorities have been unduly soft towards him or, alternatively, that the American charges are trumped up.

The reality is that, even if guilty, he could not have been prosecuted under English law at the time of the kidnapping. The law was tightened by the Terrorism Act 2000 which makes it illegal to support specified foreign "terrorist" organisations, including the Islamic Army, but it does not apply retrospectively. Another difficulty is that evidence from phone taps is not admissible in British courts.

Nevertheless, the British authorities have kept Abu Hamza under close surveillance, monitoring his sermons for evidence of incitement - but he appears to be legally well-briefed and manages to stay just on the right side of the law.

Legal action by the Charities Commission banned him from Finsbury Park Mosque, though he has continued to preach and pray with his supporters in the street outside. At the time of his arrest last month, moves to expel him from Britain - on the grounds that he acquired citizenship through a bogus marriage - were progressing slowly in the courts.

The American extradition request is controversial because it is the first case under a new agreement which does not oblige the US to produce detailed evidence of alleged offences. Although this is considered a fast-track procedure, it may still take some time.

If the request is approved, Abu Hamza will have an opportunity to appeal and, even then, he can only be extradited if the US gives firm undertakings that the death penalty will not be applied.