LONDON – Radical preacher Abu Qatada, once called Usama bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe," was released on bail Tuesday in a court decision that dealt an embarrassing blow to the British government's anti-terror campaign.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith reacted by saying the government will protect national security and public safety, despite the unwanted release of Abu Qatada.
"I am extremely disappointed that the courts have granted Abu Qatada bail, albeit with very strict conditions," she said, pledging to try and overturn an April decision that prevented the British government from deporting the terror suspect back to Jordan, where he has been convicted of terror attacks dating back to 1998.
She said that decision, which set in motion Abu Qatada's release on bail, would be appealed in the House of Lords, Britain's highest court. The Court of Appeal ruled in April that Qatada and other suspects could not be deported to Jordan because they might face torture there and could not be assured a fair trial.
Thus far Abu Qatada, 47, has defied British efforts to deport him or keep him in prison, but he will remain under extremely heavy surveillance once he returns to his residence and may have his bail revoked if he violates the terms of his release, officials said.
British government officials maintain Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-Jordanian, had ties to convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid and to Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged and convicted in the United States for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Authorities accused him of raising large amounts of money for extremist networks in Britain and abroad and of having provided spiritual guidance and comfort to extremists planning lethal terror attacks.
Judge Baltasar Garzon, a prominent Spanish judge who has prosecuted a number of terror cases, has accused Abu Qatada of being bin Laden's European representative. Others have said he acted as the Al Qaeda leader's banker in the years before the 9/11 attacks brought increased scrutiny of the financial networks used by extremists to move money throughout the world.
Abu Qatada was released from Long Lartin Prison in central England Tuesday night, but his freedom of movement and his ability to communicate with the outside world will be severely limited by harsh conditions imposed by Judge John Mitting in Tuesday's eight-page ruling.
In effect, Abu Qatada will live under constant police surveillance and is expected to be monitored at all times.
He will be confined to his home 22 hours per day, and on the two hours when he is allowed to leave his house he will have to stay within a small area defined by the court.
He will be fitted with an electronic monitoring device so police can track his movements at all times, and he will not be allowed to have any computers, mobile phones or Internet connections within his home.
Police will have the right to search the home and its premises at any point and will be free to photograph Abu Qatada at any time. In addition, he will not be allowed to have visitors at his home, except for his wife, children, a doctor, a lawyer and other children under 10 years of age, unless senior government officials give advance permission.
When he is outside the home, he will not be allowed to have any meetings, and he is specifically barred from having any direct or indirect contact with a large number of terror suspects, including Usama bin Laden and his deputy, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Once he is freed, Abu Qatada will have to surrender his passport and he will be limited to having one bank account and one conventional telephone line in his house. No data storage machines or fax machines will be allowed in his home.
He is explicitly barred from attending any mosque, and will not be allowed to give lectures or lead prayers or provide religious instruction, except to his wife and children. He also is not allowed to publish any statement that has not been approved in advance by British officials.
The long list of restrictions will greatly limit Abu Qatada's operational capacity, but there may be some loopholes that allow him to send and receive messages, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College.
"Will there be security checks on his wife and kids, coming and going?" he said. "I doubt there would be. These are theoretical ways he could circumvent the restrictions and get messages in and out."
Ranstorp said the British government would likely try to catch Abu Qatada breaking the extremely strict bail conditions so they could seek a hearing that could land the preacher in prison again.
"They will be ready to pounce so they can get him back in jail," said Ranstorp. "The restrictions show what a dangerous man he is. He played a role as a magnet for radicals in London, and he had a lot of reach, not just in Britain, but representing Al Qaeda internationally. He was always in the shadows."
Abu Qatada was a source of concern to British police long before the 9/11 attacks because of his convictions in Jordan and his links to Al Qaeda.