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
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
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
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