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Arrest of Islamic Cleric Abu Hamza al

May 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The arrest of a radical Islamic cleric in London and his suspected links to the United States. For more about Abu Hamza al- Masri, we go to Elaine Shannon, F.B.I. And terrorism reporter for Time Magazine; and Steven Simon, former senior director for transnational threats on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton. He co-authored “The Age of Sacred Terror,” about al-Qaida, and is now a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Elaine Shannon, what does the government say that Abu al-Masri did?

ELAINE SHANNON: A lot. They’ll are saying that he provided a cell phone and a lot of guidance, I think, to people in Yemen who kidnapped some tourists back in ’98, four of them were killed in a shootout with the Yemeni police when the Yemeni police tried to rescue them.

For this count in the indictment, theoretically, he could be charged with — he could be sentenced to death. But the U.S. has agreed to not seek that penalty if he’s extradited here. They also say that he helped people travel to Afghanistan to work with al-Qaida and the Taliban, and that he in other ways provided material support to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: Is he a big fish?

ELAINE SHANNON: He’s quite prominent. This mosque that he was head of was … the Finsbury Park Mosque was a very big mosque, we’ve all heard that Richard Reid had worshipped there, as had Zacarias Moussaoui.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Simon is this a major indictment in your view?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, Abu Hamza hasn’t been in a position to do any harm to U.S. interests for several years at least, he’s been under the intense scrutiny of British police, and in fact has been the subject of litigation in Britain already, as the British tried, I guess it was a couple of years ago, to deport him to Yemen. But they failed, the British government failed to convince the court that there were genuine links between Abu Hamza and terrorist activities. So it’s really it seems to me a stretch to say that he’s a real and imminent threat to U.S. interests, although he does seem though have been involved in at least two conspiracies in years past between 1998 and 2000, according to the indictment.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s been public talk from law enforcement people alleging his involvement with these various crimes for years, and after he was locked out of mosque in London, he became a street preacher. So it wasn’t like he was a shadowy underworld hard-to-find figure. What does it tell you that it took this long to indict him?

STEVEN SIMON: I think of the indictment hinged on the appearance of an informant who was able to link Abu Hamza with some of the crimes he’s alleged to have committed in the indictment. Before the informant appeared, there really wasn’t a case. So the grand jury, you know, there was no way a grand jury could return an indictment.

RAY SUAREZ: Elaine Shannon, why is he being charged in the southern district of New York for a crime that involved killing third party nationals in yet another country?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, Americans were taken hostages in the hostage taking which resulted in the deaths of I believe three British citizens and an Australian. So that’s a crime, the southern district has — of New York, that’s the Manhattan federal district — has long specialized in al-Qaida, I think they’ve had their eye on this guy for a long time, they may have played a key role in developing at least one informant, and by my reading maybe several more.

RAY SUAREZ: But what does it mean that the United States chooses to extradite him and try him, rather than allowing courts in Britain to do so when it was British nationals who were killed, or having him tried in Yemen?

ELAINE SHANNON: Exactly, it’s an interesting question. And it’s clear that the U.S. government has an agreement with at least part of the British government to do it this way, that there have been statements from British politicians that seem to support this. But of course it will be up to the British courts to decide whether the extradition is in order.

RAY SUAREZ: In the indictments, Steven Simon, there are a lot of references to people as yet unnamed, who I assume are still at large. They describe crimes in which today’s accused played a small role and it’s the other co-conspirators who went out and did a lot of the dirty work. Does this signal a sort of meticulous slowly peeling back of the case kind of approach, does it signal that there are still a lot more people to be arrested in connection with some of these events?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, I don’t really know the answer to that question. There were a number of co-conspirators, at least one of them is an informant who was instrumental in bringing this case to an indictment. The thing that this man is accused of doing in the first instance is providing a satellite phone to individuals who went to Yemen and some of which were already in Yemen and participated in this kidnapping venture, which went wrong when Yemeni police stormed the kidnappers in an attempt to free the hostages and in the process apparently killed four of the hostages.

He’s also thought to have provided financial assistance to people who were seeking to go to Afghanistan, presumably, to fight in the jihad. And he’s also thought to have violated a Clinton era executive order which prohibits Americans, or prohibits people generally from engaging in financial ties to the Taliban, which he did by providing a computer lab for use in Kandahar. Another thing he’s been accused of, of course is trying to facilitate the establishment of a training camp in Oregon. There were a number of training camps, Islamic training camps in the United States that were sets up during the 1980s, both in Connecticut and New York, and there were probably more, this is a problem. But we’re a country with weak gun laws and strong protection for citizens’ rights. And that’s going to make it easy for people to set up these kinds of camps, as the Christian right, of course, has done as well. So, yes, there were a few people who were involved in this thing, there were a number of people who were involved in the Yemen event in particular, but it doesn’t look as though in the context of these other counts of the indictment that there were a very large number of people involved.

RAY SUAREZ: Elaine Shannon, what’s known, what more is known about this alleged camp in Bly, Oregon.

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, it didn’t happen; what we know is that one of the men who was trying to find the land and set it up … he pleaded guilty and is now cooperating with the government. That’s where the information comes from. But I take a larger message from this charge.

The attorney general on the FBI director yesterday spoke very strongly that their fears of what may happen this summer, and one of their concerns is the recruitment of Europeans and Americans. They regard this man and his group in London as big recruiters, big time, not only fund raisers but proselytizers and recruiters and they want to send the message that we’re going to stop people who do this, and if we charge them with an historic crime, fine, but we’re going to go after those people and try to take them out of business.

RAY SUAREZ: And it seems that his role was more assistance than instrumental, getting people a phone, sending money here and there, preparing people to go on trips to other places, the kind of guy, I guess, you need if you’re going to run an operation like this, but not one of the kingpins.

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, it depends on what you mean by kingpin. You can argue that the operatives who killed themselves are canon fodder and the smarter people stay back and set everybody else up. But which ever way it goes, I think they are quite concerned about the intelligence coming in, they say yeah, it’s not new, but there’s more of it, it’s high quality, we do think that they’re going to try. And we want to get the word out in many ways that we want to stop the people who are facilitating it, we want American and European citizens and other citizens to pay attention to little things and we don’t want it to happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Elaine Shannon, Steven Simon, thank you both.