Behind Bars: The Arrest of Abu Hamza al-Masri

Evan Kohlmann
During the summer of 2002, only months after the United States had been rocked by one of the worst incidences of terrorism in modern history, I found myself outside the Finsbury Park mosque in a low-income area of North London. The neighborhood is unique but unremarkable, with rows of dreary public housing projects, weathered English storefront shops, and an eclectic collection of Islamic bookstores and religious outreach centers. The mosque itself, set just back from the bustle of the main streets, is an imposing sight with its pale grey minaret rising above the adjoining rooftops. 

“In the immediate wake of the September 11th suicide hijackings, Abu Hamza offered a sermon titled “The World Trade Series: The Believers vs. the [Infidelity] of America.” 

I had come to Finsbury with a longtime colleague in hopes of speaking with the elusive then-Imam (head cleric) of the mosque: the notorious, recently indicted Al Qaeda supporter Abu Hamza al-Masri (a.k.a. Mustafa Kamel). Abu Hamza is a horribly disfigured, menacing, and unapologetic supporter of Islamic militancy. Those immediately unfamiliar with Abu Hamza, aptly nicknamed “Captain Hook” by various critics, will perhaps recall that his name has emerged in connection with a number of international terrorists, including: French nationals Zacarias Moussaoui (an alleged attempted 9/11 hijacker) and Djamel Beghal (accused of plotting a suicide bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Paris); Briton Richard Reid (a would-be “shoe-bomber”); and American Ernest James Ujamaa (who aimed to set up an Al Qaeda training camp in Oregon). Following the discovery of a suspected London terror plot involving the poison ricin, British authorities finally ejected Abu Hamza and his supporters from their entrenched nest in Finsbury.

In the immediate wake of the September 11th suicide hijackings, Abu Hamza offered a sermon titled “The World Trade Series: The Believers vs. the [Infidelity] of America.”  To a rapt audience, he thundered, “Terrorism is a tool for everybody to get his way… It is a tool, it is a weapon. Allah said to terrorize the enemies of Allah and your enemies. It is a weapon, and it is a very effective weapon.  And if you leave this weapon, then Allah’s destruction and wrath will be upon you.”  He also has called Usama bin Laden a “victim from the American policies” and a “good-hearted person.”

Over the past decade, Abu Hamza has led an organization based in the U.K. known as the “Supporters of Shariah” (a.k.a. SOS, Ansar al-Shariah), which admitted on its former website to supporting “the Mujahideen… in, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, etc.,” including recruiting and aiding “front line soldiers.”  He has also maintained a close relationship with the Algerian terrorist underground in Europe, and helped them by coordinating fundraising efforts and publishing their “Al-Ansaar” newsletter.  While serving as the firebrand cleric at the unassuming Finsbury Park Mosque, Abu Hamza estimated his weekly audience at over 1,200 people: “If it’s too difficult or raining sometimes 900 people. On the festivals we have 6,000 people.” 

A walk through Finsbury seemed to confirm his assessment — on a given Friday hundreds of young men, including many European and American converts, climb the building’s stairwells to meet and absorb the wisdom of their eccentric leader. This is a subject of some amusement to the bearded cleric; when asked if visitors from the U.S. often come and visit him, he chuckled and responded, “Oh absolutely… American converts, many American converts from the army converted to Islam, many.” 

European intelligence agencies have correspondingly concluded that Abu Hamza is an integral recruiter and financier of the North African sleeper cell network and a major figure in the overall European “foreign legion” of Al Qaeda.  Abu Hamza’s own son and godson were convicted in 1999 in a Yemeni court for taking part in an attempted bombing conspiracy against “un-Islamic” targets in that country.  Also that year, the militant cleric was profiled in a British documentary by reporter Deborah Davies. One of his sermons cited in the documentary was a call for Muslims to “get training” in order to “get the [infidel] and crush his head in your arms, so you can wring his throat, so you can whip his intestines out. That’s why you are doing training… to rip the people to pieces. Forget wasting a bullet on them… cut them in half!”  

In the same video, Abu Hamza is shown at a conference explaining a diagram for the “Muslim Anti-Aircraft Net,” a design for a floating net laced with mines intended to randomly entrap and destroy civilian passenger aircraft in Great Britain and the U.S.  In a later press release about the conference, SOS representatives explained that the anti-aircraft grid was “designed by our Brothers in Afghanistan. These nets will increase the hazard and risk to flying, and are a response to the destructive inventions of the infidel West… These nets, if mass produced, can cost less than £10, and are undetected by radar. They can be launched from any point, and move to anywhere in the world.  We urge all brothers and sisters to also begin thinking of designs and techniques such as these, because the time for talking has long since passed.”

Indeed, this is exactly what Abu Hamza specializes in: exploiting regional conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia to enlist idealistic young men for a life of violence and terrorism amongst the international legions of Al Qaeda and other ruthless fanatic groups.  At a time when much attention is being paid to the security problem posed by Westernized, English-speaking Al Qaeda operatives, Abu Hamza’s arrest is a much welcome — if long overdue — victory in the war on terror.

Evan Kohlmann is an International Terrorism Consultant and author of the upcoming book, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network (Berg Publishers, June 2004).  His website is located at