NEW YORK: Jury selection began Monday in the trial of British hate preacher Abu Hamza, who faces life behind bars if found guilty on kidnapping and terror charges that predate the Sept. 11 attacks.
It is the second high-profile terror trial heard in a Manhattan federal court after Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith was convicted on March 26.
Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known in Britain as Abu Hamza al-Masri, is blind in one eye and lost both arms, blown off above the elbow, in an explosion in Afghanistan years ago.
As Abu Hamza sat in court, district judge Katherine Forrest briefly explained to potential jurors the 11 charges against a man accused of being a terror facilitator with a global reach.
The charges relate to the 1998 kidnapping in Yemen of 16 Western tourists, of whom four were killed, and conspiracy to set up an Al-Qaeda-style training camp in Oregon in late 1999.
He is also accused of providing material support to bin Laden’s terror network, of wanting to set up a computer lab for the Taliban and sending recruits for terror training in Afghanistan.
The defendant, who turns 56 Tuesday, will likely face the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison if convicted during what is expected to be a four-week trial.
He has pleaded not guilty.
He was first indicted in the United States in 2004 and served eight years in prison in Britain before losing his last appeal in the European Court of Human Rights against extradition.
Flown to the U.S. in 2012, authorities lost no time removing his trademark prosthetic hook that he wore in the place of one hand.
Born in Egypt, Abu Hamza moved to Britain to study engineering before he morphed into an anti-American preacher at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London.
The mosque has been dubbed a breeding ground for terrorism and was frequented by Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence in the U.S. for trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic jetliner in 2001.
Abu Hamza has closely followed all pretrial debates in court and wrote to Forrest saying that he wants to testify.
The prosecution is expected to bring a large number of audio and video recordings, particularly of Abu Hamza’s speeches justifying terrorism in the name of God.
Prosecutors also want British terror convict Saajid Badat to testify by video link from Britain. Badat appeared on screen at the trial of Abu Ghaith last month.
Forrest asked Badat to come in person. He refused, given that he faces arrest on U.S. soil for plotting to blow up a passenger jet with a shoe bomb in collusion with Reid.
Abu Hamza was arrested in August 2004 in Britain at Washington’s request and sentenced in a British court to seven years in 2006 for inciting murder and racial hatred.
He went to the European Court of Human Rights to avoid extradition but lost his final appeal in October 2012 and was flown immediately to the United States.
In the 1998 hostage taking, he is accused of providing the kidnappers with a satellite phone, acting as an intermediary and dispensing advice by telephone from home.
He is also accused of providing support to Al-Qaeda, and just days before the 9/11 attacks, he allegedly discussed plans to open a computer lab for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
He is accused of giving a co-conspirator 6,000 British pounds ($10,000 under today’s exchange rate) to lease a building to house the computer lab and pay for some of the startup expenses.