The terror trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri, an extremist Egyptian preacher who has no hands and only one eye, got underway in New York City Monday. Lawyers started by trying to pick an impartial jury for Hamza ran a London mosque attended by a September 11 conspirator and the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
Abu Hamza is being tried under his given name, Mustafa Kamel Mustafa. He is the second prominent accused terrorist to be tried in New York City this year. Less than a month ago, Suleiman Abu Ghaith was convicted by a New York jury of conspiring to kill Americans, as well as other terrorism-related counts.
While Abu Ghaith was a high-profile Al Qaeda mouthpiece — and a son-in-law of Osama Bin Laden — who appeared in numerous Al Qaeda videos celebrating 9/11 and threatening “a storm of airplanes” carrying out further attacks, Abu Hamza was allegedly a supporter of the terrorist organization’s far-flung network who provided logistical support for certain operations.
One of the charges Abu Hamza will face involves a kidnapping in Yemen back in 1998, in which 16 people including two American tourists were seized by terrorists who planned to trade the hostages for the release of imprisoned radical leaders. One of the Americans, a woman, was hurt in the rescue attempt by Yemeni armed forces, and four other hostages died.
The U.S. government says that Abu Hamza arranged satellite phone communications that helped the hostage takers coordinate their kidnapping. Abu Hamza is also accused of trying to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon.
Abu Hamza has maintained his innocence and say he will testify on his own behalf during the trial.
“I think I am innocent,” he told a judge last week; Abu Hamza was extradited from England to the U.S. in 2012. “I need to go through it, have a chance to defend myself.”
The cleric faces a life sentence.
Following the successful prosecution of Abu Ghaith in March, the Abu Hamza trial will be the second test of the Obama administration policy of trying high-level terror suspects in civilian courts. The policy is broadly supported by the military and the intelligence community but opposed by Republicans in congress, who said that such trials pose a security threat.
They also claim that civilian trials deprive the military of the opportunity to question terror suspects continuously “without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers,” as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said.
New York police have stationed a small number of additional officers outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan for the Abu Hamza trial, but say they are aware of no specific threats connected to the trial.
Abu Hamza was the chief cleric at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque in the 1990s; it was there that September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and failed “shoe bomber” Richard Reid were converted to the Al Qaeda-style extremist form on Islam.
The cleric is known for his distinctive hooks that function as prosthetic hands, as well as his missing eye. Abu Hamza has said the injuries resulted from clearing mines during the 1980s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.