[NEWS] WASHPOST - Probe Targets Cleric in London

From: indonesia-p@indopubs.com
Date: Sun Oct 28 2001 - 10:14:52 EST


X-URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63383-2001Oct27.html

   Probe Targets Cleric in London
   Radical Preacher Draws Followers While Enjoying British Public Aid
   
   By Michael Dobbs
   Washington Post Foreign Service
   Sunday, October 28, 2001; Page A24
   
   LONDON -- Loquacious and charismatic, Abu Qatada says he cannot
   understand why the U.S. government believes he is connected with the
   terrorist network of fugitive Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden.
   He insists that he is merely "a simple teacher of Islam" with "a big
   mouth and a big belly."
   
   The Palestinian-born preacher is sitting in the cramped front room of
   his government-subsidized, semi-detached house in the west London
   suburb of Acton, a week after his assets were frozen at the behest of
   the Bush administration. He is surrounded by heavily bearded friends
   and followers who laugh readily at his jokes against Americans,
   corrupt Arab regimes and the British secret service, MI5, which he
   assumes is eavesdropping on his every word.
   
   "I am astonished by President Bush when he claims there is nothing in
   the Koran that justifies jihad or violence in the name of Islam," says
   the 40-year-old cleric, whose real name is Omar Uthman Abu Omar, but
   who is much better known by his nickname, Abu Qatada, which means
   "father of Qatada." "Is he some kind of Islamic scholar? Has he ever
   actually read the Koran?"
   
   Abu Qatada's hard-line fundamentalist views and talent for ready
   repartee have earned him a mass following among radical young Muslims
   seeking a more militant, anti-Western form of Islam than that preached
   in mainstream mosques. According to police records and court
   documents, his followers include several men detained in Europe
   because of suspected ties with bin Laden's terrorist movement, al
   Qaeda.
   
   Videotaped sermons by Abu Qatada were also found in a Hamburg
   apartment that had been used by three of the men alleged to have
   hijacked the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center,
   according to a German source with access to police reports.
   
   Sentenced by Jordan to life imprisonment for a series of alleged
   terrorist offenses -- including a plot to kill American tourists
   around the time of the millennium -- Abu Qatada is one of several
   radical Islamic preachers who have been given shelter in Britain,
   which prides itself on a tradition of generous political asylum.
   Britain does not have an extradition treaty with Jordan.
   
   Although Western intelligence officials view Abu Qatada as one of the
   foremost European proponents of the bin Laden doctrine of jihad, or
   holy war, they have been unable to develop enough evidence to bring
   specific charges against him, or even to justify his deportation.
   British police detained the cleric for a few days in February during a
   crackdown on Islamic activists but released him.
   
   While there is little evidence linking Abu Qatada to specific
   terrorist acts, investigators say he has played an important role in
   shaping the ideology and worldview of young Muslims who then
   gravitated to the al Qaeda network.
   
   French investigators refer to this process as "Londonization," arguing
   that the British capital has become one of the primary locations for
   the indoctrination of jihadists, and an important way station en route
   to bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.
   
   For the past decade, as the governments of many Middle East countries
   cracked down on Islamic fundamentalism, preachers such as Abu Qatada
   have taken advantage of the relatively tolerant atmosphere in Western
   European countries to spread their doctrines of jihad. Britain in
   particular has been a haven for fundamentalists who enjoy traditional
   British liberties and a generous social welfare system even as they
   rail against the culture that has given them refuge.
   
   A good example of this indoctrination process is Jamal Beghal, 38, an
   Algerian-born Frenchman now detained in France on suspicion of
   plotting to attack U.S. targets, including the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
   Interrogated last week by French magistrates, Beghal said he had moved
   to Britain from France in 1997 to study under Abu Qatada, having heard
   about him through audiotapes and videocassettes.
   
   After three years in Britain, Beghal disappeared in November 2000,
   according to a transcript of his interrogation published in the French
   newspaper Le Monde. According to his former next-door neighbors in the
   central English town of Leicester, his departure was so rushed that
   pots were left on the stove and clothes hanging out to dry. His French
   wife and two young children left with him, and he later surfaced in
   Afghanistan, where according to the transcript he spent seven months
   in an al Qaeda training camp.
   
   Beghal described religious training sessions at which Abu Qatada or
   his associates talked about the need for Arabs to "flee impious
   countries" and prepare for jihad in Afghanistan. Beghal was arrested
   in the United Arab Emirates in July, while on his way back to Europe,
   after attempting to use a false French passport.
   
   Other suspected terrorists believed to have attended Abu Qatada's
   lectures include Beghal's close associate, Kamel Daoudi, who was
   arrested in Britain last month and sent back to France, and Zacarias
   Moussaoui, a 33-year-old Moroccan arrested in Minneapolis on Aug. 13
   after behaving suspiciously at a flight training school. Moussaoui's
   mother and brother have told reporters that he was "brainwashed" by
   Islamic extremists during a seven-year stay in London.
   
   Intercepted phone conversations among suspected al Qaeda members in
   Milan show that Abu Qatada was also highly regarded in Islamic
   extremist circles there, according to transcripts obtained by The
   Washington Post.
   
   Essid Sami Ben Khemais, 33, a Tunisian accused by Italian magistrates
   of heading a terrorist cell, is heard in one such conversation
   describing an instruction from Abu Qatada for Muslims to donate all
   their money to Islamic guerrilla fighters.
   
   Asked about his contacts with suspected terrorists, and shown pictures
   of Beghal and Daoudi, Abu Qatada said it was difficult for him to
   remember specific names or faces. He said that he may have given
   religious instruction to people who have since been arrested but
   denied any organizational links to bin Laden or al Qaeda. "What is the
   crime in talking to people about the Koran?" he asked.
   
   Born in Bethlehem in 1960, Abu Qatada came of age during the Israeli
   occupation of the West Bank, an experience that he says contributed to
   his radical views. In 1990, he went to the Pakistani city of Peshawar,
   near the Afghan border, to study Islam. People who have studied Abu
   Qatada suggest he may have met bin Laden at this time -- the Saudi
   dissident is known to have visited Pakistan in 1991 -- but Abu Qatada
   said that such a meeting never took place.
   
   "It would have been an honor for me to have met him, but I didn't," he
   said, running a comb through his thick black beard.
   
   The cleric said he got into trouble in Jordan in 1991 because he
   opposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait at a time when many Jordanians
   sided with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He added that he was equally
   opposed to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia during and after
   the Persian Gulf War. After his family's store was burned down in
   Amman, he fled Jordan and was granted political asylum in Britain in
   1993.
   
   Like many other London-based Arab dissidents, Abu Qatada has received
   regular welfare checks from the British government -- and
   government-subsidized housing. The government canceled the welfare
   payments and launched an investigation into his finances at the end of
   last week after several British newspapers reported that the cleric
   controlled a secret bank account containing about $270,000. A
   spokesman for the British treasury refused to confirm the reports but
   said he was not "jumping up and down" to deny them either.
   
   "It's all lies," said Abu Qatada at his house, producing his latest
   bank statement, which showed government child support subsidies of
   about $450 a week, plus a payment of about $2,000 for the upkeep of
   his dilapidated house in Acton, a working-class district.
   
   In the mid-1990s, according to Azzam Tammimi, director of the
   Institute of Political Islamic Thought in London, Abu Qatada issued
   several religious edicts justifying the killing of women and children
   from families connected with the military government in Algeria. At
   the time, Algeria was a hot political issue in Islamic circles, as the
   government waged a brutal war against Islamic fundamentalists after
   canceling elections that fundamentalists were poised to win.
   
   Seated in his house beneath a wall of sacred Islamic texts, in bare
   feet and a white preacher's tunic, Abu Qatada said that "there is no
   solution to the problems of the Arab world except through jihad." Like
   bin Laden, he depicts the struggle as a "defensive" war against
   Western, particularly U.S., aggression, culminating in the bombing of
   Afghanistan, which he views as the only genuine Islamic state.
   
   He did not endorse the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
   Pentagon but did not criticize them either. "We have suffered enough
   from what the Americans are doing to us to be concerned about what the
   Americans are suffering," he said. "Every day, five to six people are
   being killed in Palestine. Hundreds of innocent people are being
   killed in Afghanistan. You want us to stop crying over our people in
   order to cry over your people."
   
   He said he knows he may be arrested again under new anti-terrorism
   legislation passed in Britain. He sleeps, along with his wife and four
   children, fully dressed, "because we do not know what will happen."
   
   Special correspondent Adi Bloom in Leicester contributed to this
   report.