Abu Hamza al-Masri (search) is not the sort of guy you want to spend an afternoon with — but I did.
Back in August 2002 I landed an interview with the firebrand Muslim cleric, now arrested by British authorities and under U.S. indictment on a range of terror charges. The hitch was that I had to pick him up at his house and then drive him to his mosque, a trip that took about an hour through thick London traffic.
Not wanting to blow the interview with some tough questions in the car, I was faced with that ultimate dilemma: How do you make small talk with an alleged terrorist? He had spent time in Afghanistan (as I had, reporting on the War on Terror) so we chatted a bit about the geography and the people there. But that only worked for a few minutes.
Luckily, most of the time he was busy taking calls on his mobile phone. No easy task for Al-Masri. Both hands were blown off while he was in Afghanistan, leaving him with a steel hook for a right hand. So his young son riding with us had to hold his mobile phone up to his ear.
By the way, Al-Masri claims he lost his hands and an eye fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the '80s. The real story was he was injured in a landmine accident — in the '90s.
That afternoon, Al-Masri would "fudge" a lot of things. Like denying the allegation that his mosque was being used as a recruiting base for Al Qaeda. And charges that terror training was even being done in the basement of the mosque and people were being shown the fine art of how to use an AK-47 automatic machine gun.
It was hard for him to deny the existence of videotapes we found being peddled in the bookstore of his mosque, openly supportive of Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden (search). And in the interview, while he "coded" his answers a bit, it was clear where his feelings lay. When I pressed him on the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he acknowledged, "certain areas of the U.S. ... should be removed."
He asked that we not videotape inside his mosque out of respect for his congregation. Of course it had been in that same mosque where Al-Masri showed little respect for the West and a lot of admiration for the anti-West jihad. "The button for jihad has been pushed," he admitted. "It doesn't go back too easily. It will swallow everything."
We did manage to get some footage outside his mosque, but he also asked us not to do that. Again, he didn't want to alarm any of his young followers. But those young adherents have certainly been alarming to some folks — it's reported the likes of alleged Sept. 11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui (search) and so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid (search) had been spotted there taking notes!
Since we spoke with Al-Masri England has cracked down, shutting his mosque and stripping the Egyptian-born cleric of his British citizenship. His lawyers were appealing that when he was nabbed by the authorities in London.
Oh, by the way, we had to drive Al-Masri back to his house after the interview. No more small talk in the car. Just a lot of silence. Now the firebrand might be silenced ... for good.