Abu Qatada has been convicted in Jordan, indicted in Spain, arrested in Britain and accused of being Al Qaeda’s top ideologue in Europe.
Western investigators call him the godfather of “Londonistan,” a nickname for the multiethnic extremist community that flourished here in the late 1990s. The cleric’s sermons allegedly influenced Abu Musab Zarqawi, who led Al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006; the train bombers who hit Madrid in 2004; and the hijackers who struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
But soon the portly, 48-year-old Jordanian with the long beard will be released on bail from a top-security prison near London. An immigration panel ordered the release after an appellate court blocked an effort to deport him to Jordan.
Seven years after he came to personify Londonistan, anti-terrorism officials are still trying to figure out what to do with him. Investigators have struggled to turn the intelligence about his activities into evidence for prosecution, a senior British anti-terrorism official said in an interview.
“He is emblematic of the problem of the ideologue,” said the British official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case.
Many European countries lack strong laws against incitement and recruitment, said veteran anti-terrorism prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso. He has overseen investigations of suspected militants in Italy who he says revered Abu Qatada.
“Even with the most hard-core extremist speech, you run into the problem of freedom of expression, freedom of religion,” Dambruoso said. “It is very difficult to connect words to acts committed by others.”
Abu Qatada’s lawyers accuse the government of trampling his rights in a campaign that tries to criminalize religious activity and creates indefinite detention for foreign suspects. His lawyer calls the media’s description of him as Al Qaeda’s spiritual leader in Europe “nonsense” and has challenged law enforcement to put him on trial.
Instead, authorities chose a strategy of sending him back to Jordan to be judged. British diplomats crafted a deal in which the Jordanians agreed to let independent human rights watchdogs monitor his treatment during a retrial on charges related to a terrorist attack and a foiled bomb plot in Jordan for which he had been convicted in absentia.
Nonetheless, the appellate panel ruled last month that British officials could not guarantee Abu Qatada’s safety or prevent the use of Jordanian evidence already obtained through torture.
It was his latest victory in the justice system. In early 2005 he was released after almost three years in prison when the Law Lords, Britain’s highest appeal venue, struck down a tough anti-terrorism law created largely to detain Abu Qatada. He was soon arrested again pending the deportation procedure.
Abu Qatada’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce, and others criticize the program to deport accused foreign militants to be prosecuted in homelands with poor human rights records such as Jordan, Libya and Algeria. They allege that two Algerians were abused after being deported, making official British criticism of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, seem hypocritical.
Writing last month in the London Review of Books, Peirce said the government had “impermissibly crossed the legal barriers guaranteed by domestic and international treaties.” Aggressive counter-terrorism measures make Muslims in Britain a “suspect community” that increasingly believes it is “expected to eradicate its opinions, its identity and many of the core precepts of its religion,” she charged.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has expressed “extreme disappointment” with the decision to release Abu Qatada. She promised to pursue the deportation and “take all steps necessary to protect the public.”
Privately, though, British officials do not sound optimistic about the planned appeal in the deportation case, much less a Spanish prosecution bid that remains in limbo. Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon indicted Abu Qatada in late 2001 along with several dozen alleged Al Qaeda militants in Spain.
Most of the suspects in Spain were convicted of terrorist activity in 2005, though several were acquitted of the most serious charges of assisting the Sept. 11 plot. The indictment accuses Abu Qatada of working with the convicted leader of the Madrid cell, a Syrian known as Abu Dahdah, to provide support and funds to Al Qaeda militants in Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Garzon criticized Britain for not acting on his arrest warrant for Abu Qatada.
“If they had sent him to me when I had asked, he would have been sentenced to 15 years in prison like Abu Dahdah,” Garzon said in an interview.
British officials say that sending Abu Qatada to Spain would risk losing control of him if the prosecution failed.
There have also been persistent theories in law enforcement circles that Britain would find it hard to prosecute Abu Qatada because he has cooperated with British intelligence, European investigators say.
Abu Qatada’s real name is Omar Mahmoud Othman. He was born in Bethlehem in 1960 and later moved to Jordan. He came to Britain in 1993 and, like many other fundamentalist ideologues, won political asylum.
Abu Qatada became notorious for writings and sermons justifying the jihad, or “holy war,” of organizations such as Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, whose London-based newspaper he edited in the 1990s. Investigators in Europe described him as a “theoretician of jihad,” in the words of a French intelligence report in 2000, with ties across the galaxy of Al Qaeda and its allies in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. But he denies allegations of links to terrorist violence.
His release will be a public relations embarrassment. But British officials contend that his influence will be limited. Police will monitor him closely; he will probably be subjected to a 22-hour curfew and a ban on Internet activity and contact with activists.
Moreover, the radical underworld has evolved during his years in custody. New laws and intense surveillance have put firebrand clerics under pressure. As a result, young militants tend to radicalize on the Internet and in small groups at homes, gyms or other meeting places.
“You don’t see the clerics striding around anymore with impunity because it is a far more hostile environment,” the senior anti-terrorism official said. “There is a shift in radicalization. It’s not taking place as much in mosques anymore. . . . That’s not where the challenge is now.”