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Britain Expected to Use New Law to Jail Islamic Radical

Courts: Officials, citing lack of evidence, have so far not moved against Abu Qatada, branded by the U.S. and others as Bin Laden's henchman.


LONDON — Spanish investigators call him Europe's "supreme moujahedeen." British officials froze his assets at the behest of the U.S. government, which believes he is Osama bin Laden's henchman. Jordan has convicted him in absentia for terrorist crimes and accused him in a plot to kill American and Jewish tourists during millennium celebrations.

Abu Qatada is free and living in government-subsidized housing in west London, where he denies the mounting accusations of his ties to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network to the steady stream of reporters who come knocking at his door. He says he is just a simple Muslim cleric who likes to read books and offer Islamic counsel.

British officials have said they do not have enough evidence to charge Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Othman, or to initiate extradition proceedings against him.

But he is widely expected to be arrested under a sweeping new anti-terrorism measure--debated in Parliament on Wednesday and scheduled to become law before Christmas--that would allow the government to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial.

But European investigators and terrorism experts say they do not understand why the British government has not picked Abu Qatada up already.

"The Spanish, the French, the Jordanians all have information on him," said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "What are they waiting for?"

In Spanish court documents released this week, an investigative magistrate labeled Abu Qatada "the supreme leader of moujahedeen at the European level" and said he was one of the principle contacts in London for the alleged kingpin of a Spanish Al Qaeda cell.

In the documents, Judge Baltasar Garzon accused the suspects in Spain of playing a role in organizing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the first such charges made in court in Europe.

He also alleged that the Spanish cell helped finance Al Qaeda members through credit card fraud, robbery and other crimes.

Abu Qatada was instrumental in distributing that money to known terrorists, one of whom is in prison in Jordan, according to the court documents filed Sunday.

The Spanish cell "sent quantities of money to, among others, Abu Qatada" to be relayed to a moujahedeen leader convicted in Jordan in a wave of attacks; an Al Qaeda courier between Afghanistan and Europe; and others, the documents allege.

The suspected leader of the Spanish cell, Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, is accused of discussing the Sept. 11 attacks over the telephone with an unidentified caller. The indictment charges that he also made 20 trips to London in four years to meet with Al Qaeda leaders, including Abu Qatada.

Yarkas and seven other men accused of acting as recruiters for Al Qaeda were detained in Spain last week.

Abu Qatada told the British Press Assn. on Wednesday that he did not recognize Yarkas when shown a photograph of him.

"I meet all kinds of people. I can't remember everyone. I don't know who this is," he told the press association.

"I am just a cleric for Islam. People talk to me from all over the world. My phone number is worldwide spread; people call me all the time about Islamic matters," he said. "Do I look like a demon? Look, I am a religious scholar. I read books."

Britain Forbids Extradition to Jordan

Abu Qatada was born in Bethlehem in 1960 and grew up under Israeli occupation before moving to Jordan. He arrived in Britain in 1993 and applied for political asylum, which was later granted.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Jordan in absentia for his alleged involvement in a series of explosions. But he cannot be deported back to Amman because Jordan has a death penalty and Britain does not extradite suspects to countries that do.

The British government froze his assets in October after he appeared on a U.S. list of suspects who allegedly provided material support for acts of terrorism. British papers reported that he had about $265,000 in his London bank account, although he was receiving welfare payments at the time. He denied this.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, European law enforcement officials described Abu Qatada as a top Al Qaeda figure, key in developing the ideology, financing, recruitment and other operations of the terrorism network. A French intelligence report on Islamic terrorism written last summer suggested that he was not far removed from Bin Laden.

"If Osama bin Laden is often cited as the best-known Islamist in the media, it appears, in fact, that the real doctrinaires assuring the ideological direction of extremist groups and legitimizing violent actions are not just limited to the Saudi dissident," the report states. "One could never emphasize enough the role of Abu Qatada, and also of other sheiks . . . in the incitement and theorizing of jihad."

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