Radical cleric Abu Hamza 'secretly worked for MI5' to 'keep streets of London safe'
Abu Hamza, the radical Islamic preacher notorious for his hate-filled sermons, was in reality working secretly with British intelligence "to keep the streets of London safe" by "cooling hotheads", his lawyer claimed in a US court.
Holding up what he said were reports from Scotland Yard, Joshua Dratel described the cleric as an "intermediary" who cooperated with MI5 and the police to try to end foreign hostage-takings and defuse tensions with the Muslim community in Britain.
The extraordinary admission will fuel conspiracy theories that he was allowed to preach hatred without arrest for so long in the UK because he was working with the security authorities
His portrayal of the fiery Egyptian-born imam presented a very different picture from the one laid out by earlier by prosecutors who have accused him of operating a global terror network from the Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
Mr Dratel, the lead defence attorney, made the startling claim as Hamza prepared to take the witness box in his own defence in his New York trial where he has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of terrorism.
The lawyer was arguing against a prosecution request for the judge to block the cleric from talking about any dealings with British authorities that did not relate directly to the allegations against him in court.
Hamza was extradited to the US in 2012 after serving a six-year jail term in Britain for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder.
During his trial in the UK in 2006, Hamza claimed he was in regular discussions with MI5 and Special Branch between 1997 and 2000.
He claimed then that he was told he could continue to preach “as long as we don’t see blood on the street”.
The alleged discussions occurred at a time of heightened concern in the UK over the amount of Islamist extremists sheltering here, which led to the nickname “Londonistan”.
Hamza told the Old Bailey then that it was not until 2000 that he was then warned he was “walking a tightrope”.
In New York, he now faces much more serious charges of funnelling cash and recruits to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, involvement in a hostage-taking in Yemen in which three Britons were killed and trying to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon.
The cleric, who is on trial just a few streets from the scene of the Sept 2001 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Centre, has previously praised those 9/11 attacks as a "towering day in history" and lauded Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda founder.
But Mr Dratel contended that his client was in fact just making those outrageous statements to appeal to parts of the Muslim community.
"He's going to testify that he took a certain position publicly for a certain reason, but at the same time his intention was to de-escalate, to avoid wider war and to keep the streets of London safe," Mr Dratel told Judge Katherine Forrest in deliberations before the jury was ushered into the federal courtroom.
He said that Hamza expressed his true "intent" in discussions with Scotland Yard and MI5. "It goes to the theme of our defence that he was an intermediary, that MI5 asked him on multiple times to act in hostage situations, cool down the community and maintain a sense of order," he argued.
Mr Dratel said he was working from 50 pages of reports of Scotland Yard – "their notes of what was said" – in dealings with Hamza between May 1997 and August 2000, the period covered by US charges against him.
"The documents were provided by the UK," he said. "They touch on virtually every conflict that we are talking about in this case – Algeria, Bosnia, Yemen, Afghanistan."
The fact that Hamza was able to preach publicly in Britain for so long before he was apprehended fuelled rumours that he was in some way being protected by the police or security services, but there was never any confirmation of this.
Mr Dratel cited specific cases in which he said that the British authorities turned to Hamza for his assistance.
After arrests were made in Britain related to the civil war in Algeria, Hamza was asked "how the community is reacting and how to keep the community in equilibrium", he said. "He agreed to do so and made proposals."
On another occasion, when a British captive was taken in Kashmir, Hamza was reportedly asked to try to intervene as he had connections with the hostage-taking group from his time in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Mr Dratel said his client made "some phone calls" but was unable to help.
And the lawyer said that after two suspects in the 1998 US embassy bombings in east Africa were subsequently arrested in Britain, there was a discussion between Hamza and the authorities about "cooling the hotheads".
The judge later sided with the prosecution and ruled that Hamza could not testify about dealings with British intelligence. The defence said that it would ask her to review her decision on Thursday, in the light of other cases which they would bring to her attention.
Hamza lost both his arms and an eye in Afghanistan, but the US judicial authorities have removed his famous prosthetic hook as a security risk to himself and others.
Instead, he used a prosthetic limb with a pen attached to scribble notes on post-it paper and passed them to his lawyers sitting next to him in the wood-panelled courtroom on the 15th floor, overlooking lower Manhattan.
Wearing a light blue T-shirt and black track suit bottoms, with a silver beard and his steel-rimmed glasses held in place by a cord around his neck, he struck a much less sinister figure than the ranting imam who delivered incendiary statements and sermons in London.
The jury later watched in rapt attention as a New Zealand woman described the terrifying ordeal of a group of Western tourists taken hostage by Islamic radicals in Yemen in 1998. Three Britons were killed in an intense gun-battle with Yemeni soldiers as the militants used their captives as human shields.
Hamza is accused of helping to organise the hostage-taking to obtain the release of several Britons, including his son, who had been arrested with suspected bomb-making equipment by Yemen.
Mary Quin, the witness, went to the Finsbury Park mosque in 2000 to confront Hamza about his alleged role and taped the encounter. In excerpts played to the court, he told her that the hostage-taking was justified "Islamically" and that it was intended to help secure the release of "my people".
He acknowledged speaking to the lead kidnapper during the crisis and that he had provided the gang with a satellite phone.
Hamza, who faces a life sentence if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.