The one-eyed, hook-handed embodiment of England’s mounting Islamic extremism, the radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri was born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa in 1958, in Alexandria, Egypt, to middle-class parents.
Since gaining UK citizenship through his 1980 marriage to a Western woman, Valerie Fleming, al-Masri has cultivated a reputation as England’s version of Osama bin Laden. Al-Masri and his wife divorced in August 1984. According to Ms. Fleming, her ex-husband, who once worked as a doorman at a peep show in London’s Soho district, became increasingly radical after their wedding.
Though little is known about al-Masri’s history with Islamic extremists, he contends that he sustained the injuries to his hand and eye during Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union, supposedly while clearing landmines for the mujahideen. He also claims to have worked for some time in Bosnia, as head of the group Supporters of Sharia.
For years an obscure figure in England’s Muslim community, al-Masri came to prominence in 1999 when he was questioned by Scotland Yard detectives on suspicion of terrorism offenses. Yemeni authorities have requested his arrest and extradition, contending that he is linked to plots to bomb targets in that country. Yemen’s charges are seconded by the United States, which alleges that al-Masri acted as an intermediary to a terrorist group that in 1998 took sixteen tourists hostage in Yemen. Additionally, the U.S. alleges that al-Masri provided support for al Qaeda and sought to establish a terror training camp in Oregon. But American requests for al-Masri’s extradition have been thwarted by UK law, which forbids extradition unless the U.S. first agrees to waive the death penalty for the suspect.
In 1999 al-Masri spoke at a London conference lamenting the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the caliphate. “Islam needs the sword,” al-Masri said to shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is great”) from the crowd of 400 Muslims. “Whoever has the sword, he will have the earth.”
Al-Masri’s increasingly militant sermons since September 11, 2001 have unsettled British authorities. He has said, “Bin Laden is a good guy. Everyone likes him in the Muslim world, there is nothing wrong with the man and his beliefs.” Claiming that the 9/11 attacks were “done in self-defense,” al-Masri called America “a crazy superpower” and predicted, “Many people will be happy, jumping up and down.”
In 2003, al-Masri addressed a rally in central London assembled by the radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, where members expressed support for al Qaeda. On another occasion al-Masri lauded the al Qaeda operatives who had carried out the deadly October 2000 attack on the American ship USS Cole in Yemen.
According to al-Masri, suicide bombings should be classified as “shahada, martyring, because if the only way to hurt the enemies of Islam except by taking your life for that, then it is allowed.” “The person who hinders Allah’s rule, this man must be eliminated,” al-Masri added.
Al-Masri’s radical message, which included his pronouncement that the crew that perished in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster had been punished by Allah, was for a long time preached at Finsbury Park mosque in London’s northern suburbs, attracting its share of extremists, including shoe bomber Richard Reid and the so-called “twentieth hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui. British court documents also state that tapes of bin Laden speaking were on sale at the mosque.
Frustrated by al-Masri’s relentless radicalism, the Charity Commission, an agency that regulates and registers England’s charities, in February 2003 banned al-Masri from preaching at the Finsbury Park mosque. Undeterred, the cleric continued to preach from the street outside.
The British government finally revoked al-Masri’s British citizenship in April 2003, calling him a threat to the nation’s interests. Al-Masri appealed that decision to a special immigration tribunal. Government lawyers argued that al-Masri had converted his mosque into a “safe haven for Islamic extremists” and had provided “support and advice to terrorist groups” in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and Kashmir. Prosecutors further contended that al-Masri had “encouraged and supported the participation of individuals in the physical acts of jihad, including fighting overseas and engaging in terrorist acts,” and that his sermons encouraged his followers to kill non-Muslims.
On October 19, 2004, al-Masri was charged with 16 crimes under the provisions of British law, among them inciting racial hatred and encouraging the murder of non-Muslims. During his trial in early 2006, he called the Jewish people “blasphemous, treacherous and dirty” and explained that this was “why Hitler was sent into the world.” He also expressed his wish to help establish “a world dominated by a caliph, sitting in the White House.”
In February 2006 al-Masri was convicted on six charges of soliciting to murder; three charges related to “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior with the intention of stirring up racial hatred”; one charge of owning recordings related to “stirring up racial hatred”; and one charge of possessing a ten-volume Encyclopedia of the Afghani Jihad, which prosecutors described as “a blueprint for terrorism.” The publication included instructions for making explosives and identified Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower as viable targets to attack.
The evidence against al-Masri was voluminous. Police had found, among his possessions, more than 2,700 audiotapes and 570 videotapes of his fiery sermons. “Even if they [non-Muslims] don’t do anything — if Muslims cannot take them and sell them in the market — kill them, it’s OK,” the cleric says on one of those tapes. On another tape, al-Masri can be heard saying, “I can’t see any problem giving yourself a free hand, getting yourself a new car. Go for their [non-Muslims’] houses where you can loot and come back. It is like going to the forest and picking up wood from no man’s land.”
The British court sentenced al-Masri to seven years behind bars. After al-Masri spent six of those years in a British prison, American prosecutors won a protracted legal battle to extradite him to the United States in 2012. In October 2015 a U.S. court convicted him of 11 charges of terrorism and kidnapping, and sentenced him to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.