LONDON – Radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri (search) has been arrested and charged by the United States in an 11-count indictment in Manhattan federal court, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced on Thursday.
Al-Masri, also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, was arrested Thursday morning in Great Britain on an extradition warrant issued by the U.S. government. He is the former imam at the Finsbury Park mosque (search) in London.
Al-Masri has ties to James Ujaama (search), who was sentenced to two years in prison in February after he pleaded guilty last year to aiding the Taliban and helping to set up a training camp in the same town where al-Masri attempted to establish such a camp.
The indictment was returned by a federal grand jury on April 19, 2004, and was unsealed Thursday. The indictment charges him with hostage-taking and conspiracy to take hostages in connection with an attack in Yemen in December 1998 that resulted in the deaths of four hostages. The maximum sentence for the abduction is the death penalty.
Al-Masri also faces a maximum sentence of up to 100 years in prison on the additional charges contained in the indictment.
"This war against terrorism is being fought on many fronts. It is a war where innocent lives are being endangered not only by the terrorist who carries the bomb, but those who recruit and equip the terrorists," Ashcroft said during a press conference where he announced the arrest and the charges.
"The United States will use every diplomatic, legal and administrative tool to pursue and to prosecute those who facilitate terrorist activity and we will not stop until the war on terrorism is won."
But the Home Office in London, Britain's equivalent of the Justice Department, is said to be "fuming" that Ashcroft volunteered the information that Al-Masri could face the death penalty.
Under Britain's extradition agreement with the United States, no one can be extradited from there to America if they face a death sentence in the U.S. Before proceeding with the extradition request, Home Secretary David Blunkett will demand written assurances that Al-Masri would not be executed if found guilty.
A U.S. official told Fox News that in order to get him extradited, the death penalty would have to be dropped. The official especially points out that Ashcroft did not say they would seek the death penalty, only that they could seek the death penalty.
Al-Masri appeared Thursday afternoon before a magistrate at the high-security Belmarsh prison. He shrugged and laughed when asked if he would consent to being extradited, then added, "I don't really think I want to, no."
The indictment says al-Masri acted as an intermediary with the terrorists who took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen six years ago, and spoke with the terrorists before and after the incident.
Three British tourists and one Australian visitor were killed when rescuers were involved in a shootout with the terrorist captors.
The indictment also charges al-Masri with trying to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon. In October 1999, the indictment says al-Masri conspired with others to provide a training camp for "violent jihad" in Bly, Ore., and that his co-conspirators stockpiled weapons and ammunition in the United States to create the Bly Jihad Training Camp.
Other charges include providing material support to Al Qaeda and the Taliban by facilitating violent jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Masri allegedly helped raise funds through his mosque that paid for the travel of two of his co-conspirators to Afghanistan. The indictment states that in March or April of 2001, he sent directions to one of them to find a frontline commander at an Al Qaeda training camp in that country.
The indictment also says from the spring of 2000 until Sept. 6, 2001, al-Masri posted messages on a Web site urging his followers to donate money, goods and other items to Taliban programs in Afghanistan.
"The indictment alleges that Abu Hamza was a terrorist facilitator with a global reach — from aiding hostage takers in Yemen, to attempting to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon to sending people for terrorist training in Afghanistan," said Assistant Attorney General Wray. "Those who support our terrorist enemies anywhere in the world must know that we will not rest until the threat they pose is eradicated."
The Egyptian-born cleric is also wanted in Yemen on charges of orchestrating terrorism there from Britain.
One of Britain's 'Best-Known Radicals'
Earlier, London's Metropolitan Police press office refused to confirm the detention, saying only that officers from the Extradition and International Assistance Unit arrested a "British citizen, aged 47" at about 3 a.m. Thursday following an American request for his extradition.
But police sources confirmed that al-Masri was the man arrested.
Anti-terrorist officers escorted the man to a central London police station and conducted a search of his west London home under the Extradition Act 2003, police said.
Al-Masri — who has one eye and hooks to replace his hands, which he says he lost fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s — is one of Britain's best-known Islamic radicals. He formerly preached at a London mosque linked to several terrorist suspects, including Sept. 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui (search) and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid (search).
The fiery preacher, who is a tabloid hate figure in Britain, also called the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster a "punishment from Allah" because Christian, Jewish and Hindu astronauts were aboard.
Al-Masri, who married a British woman and took British citizenship in 1981, denies any involvement in violence and says he is only a spokesman for political causes.
He has been fighting deportation by the government, which has accused him of advising and supporting terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.
The British government revoked his British citizenship in April 2003, calling him a threat to the country's interests. He has appealed that decision to a special immigration tribunal and a ruling isn't expected until early next year.
Al-Masri has called the Sept. 11 attacks a Jewish plot and the invasion of Iraq a war on Islam.
At an immigration hearing last month, a government lawyer said al-Masri had "provided advice and support to terrorist groups," including Al Qaeda and the Islamic Army of Aden (search), the organization that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole (search) in Yemen in 2000.
The lawyer said al-Masri had encouraged others to engage in jihad, "including fighting overseas and engaging in terrorist acts."
Ties to Convicted Taliban Helper
James Ujaama, the Muslim convert with ties to al-Masri, was sentenced to two years in prison in Seattle in February. He had pleaded guilty last year to aiding the Taliban.
Ujaama, 38, was arrested in July 2002 and was indicted on two charges: conspiring to set up a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore., and using a firearm to further the conspiracy.
In April 2003, the government dropped those charges and filed a superseding complaint alleging that Ujaama brought money, computer equipment and a recruit to Taliban officials in Afghanistan.
Prosecutors let him plead guilty in exchange for his cooperation in terrorism investigations. In particular, they wanted to hear what he knew about al-Masri, whose Web site Ujaama once ran.
Fox News' Anna Stolley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.