Former al Qaeda associate testifies in U.S. trial of handless cleric

by Reuters
Monday, 28 April 2014 23:08 GMT

(Adds details from afternoon court session)

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK, April 28 (Reuters) - For the second time in two months, a British former al Qaeda associate on Monday testified via live video feed in a U.S. terrorism trial, as prosecutors seek to convict handless, one-eyed London cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri of supporting the group.

The testimony of Saajid Badat, 33, who appeared on a television feed in Manhattan federal court, was aimed at linking Abu Hamza, 56, with the notorious al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where fighters learned combat tactics in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But as he did last month in the U.S. trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Badat also gave jurors an detailed look at life inside al Qaeda in the years before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.

Prosecutors have accused Abu Hamza, who lost an eye and both hands fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, of sending followers and money to that country to help al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Egyptian-born imam is also charged with assisting militants who took 16 tourists hostage in Yemen in 1998 in an operation that left three of them dead, and with trying to set up a jihadist training camp in rural Oregon.

Abu Hamza became known for his sermons at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London before being convicted in Britain of inciting his followers to violence. He was extradited to the United States in 2012.

His defense lawyers have argued he used inflammatory language, but did not commit any criminal acts.

Testifying as a government witness, Badat said he encountered another man, Feroz Abbasi, at training camps in Afghanistan in 2001. Abbasi met al Qaeda leaders and discussed carrying out attacks against American and Jewish targets.

Prosecutors have accused Abu Hamza of dispatching Abbasi to Afghanistan to join al Qaeda's fight against the United States.

Badat said he never met Abu Hamza in person, but saw him preach twice at the Finsbury mosque in 1997, although he could not recall much about the sermons. He also did not know who had been Abbasi's "sponsor," as militants at the training camps were told not to discuss their backgrounds for security reasons.

Badat conspired with "shoe bomber" Richard Reid to blow up airplanes using explosives hidden in their shoes, but backed out at the last minute. Reid, also a Briton, unsuccessfully tried to detonate his bomb aboard an airplane in December 2001 and is currently serving a life sentence in the United States.

During cross examination, Abu Hamza's lawyer, Jeremy Schneider, appeared intent on reminding the jury that Badat was once committed to killing civilians on behalf of al Qaeda.

At one point, Schenider asked about a meeting with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States. Mohammed showed Badat a list of the world's tallest buildings and made a joke of crossing out the World Trade Center, which had been destroyed in the attacks, Badat confirmed.

"You laughed at that joke, didn't you?" Schneider said, raising his voice.

"Well, I had just agreed to do a shoe bombing, so that was the mentality I was in," Badat replied.

He also admitted to a feeling of "jubilance" when he learned of the attacks.

Badat is known in British parlance as a "supergrass," a prolific government informant. His testimony has been used in several other U.S. terrorism cases, including the trial of Abu Ghaith, who was convicted last month in the same courthouse where Abu Hamza is on trial.

He described the training he received in Afghanistan, including how to make poisons and build explosives. While there, he said, he met with senior al Qaeda figures about the shoe bomb plot, including bin Laden; Mohammed; Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's current leader; and al Qaeda's former military chief, Mohammed Atef.

Badat said testifying in U.S. trials is "almost like getting my revenge" on individuals such as Mohammed who should have known better than to influence young men to turn to violence.

He has refused to travel to the United States for fear he would be arrested on pending federal charges related to the shoe bomb plot. He pleaded guilty in the United Kingdom, agreed to cooperate with authorities and served five years in prison.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Andre Grenon)

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