NEW YORK: British preacher Abu Hamza told his U.S. terror trial Wednesday that he once jointly managed a London strip club in his quest to live a Western, movie-style life.
Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, 56, better known in Britain as Abu Hamza al-Masri, has pleaded not guilty to 11 kidnapping and terror counts that predate the 9/11 attacks.
Blind in one eye and with both hands blown off in an explosion in Afghanistan, he faces life in prison in a maximum security U.S. jail if convicted at the New York court.
Taking the stand for the first time in his trial, wearing tracksuit bottoms, a blue T-shirt and orange socks, the Egyptian-born former civil engineer spoke softly.
At one stage he elicited laughter from jury members by doling out marital advice, saying it would be “silly” for a man to tell his wife he didn’t love her.
“This is a silly kind of truth,” he said, explaining the man could easily change his mind multiple times.
He also said his engineering studies included the World Trade Center, destroyed in the 9/11 attacks that he has praised, and the effect of “explosions” and demolition – knowledge that he said became “useful” in later life.
He is charged over the 1998 kidnapping of 16 Westerners in Yemen, conspiracy to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon in 1999, providing material support to Al-Qaeda, assisting the Taliban and sending recruits for terror training in Afghanistan.
The three-time married father of nine said he moved to England in 1979 aged 21 because he “looked forward to a Western life, American-style.”
He testified that he wanted to “pursue my dreams as we see in the films” after growing up in Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which he described as “very close to Italy” and used to foreigners.
In London, he took odd jobs, working as a hotel receptionist, a bouncer in the Soho party district and said he co-managed a strip club.
He said he wanted to “make money and enjoy myself” and only later saw the jobs as falling on the “wrong side of morality.”
Once he saved up enough money, he said he enrolled for a degree in civil engineering. As an engineer he worked as a contractor at Britain’s prestigious military academy Sandhurst, which he quickly pointed out was where Prince Harry had trained.
He blamed his initial interest in Islam in 1982 on his English wife, who was “pushing too hard” to convert in order for the couple to spend more time together.
They bought an English edition of the Quran and stopped smoking. During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, he took time off from the clubs and found that he “enjoyed” the break, he said.
He said lies were justified in Islam in certain cases, but denied he would lie on the stand.
“I’m no stranger to prison. If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity, I don’t want it,” he said.
He was indicted in the U.S. in 2004 and was arrested in Britain, where he served eight years in prison before losing his fight against extradition in 2012.