| Abu Hamza al-Masri Policemen guard the entrance to the home of radical cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri in west London. (AFP)
New York/London, May 27 (Reuters): The US today charged a radical cleric held in London with trying to set up an al Qaida training camp in America and with hostage-taking, which could carry a death sentence.
Just hours after police arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri in London in a pre-dawn raid, an 11-count indictment in Manhattan federal court charged him with hostage-taking in an attack in Yemen in December, 1998 in which four hostages were killed.
The indictment also said Hamza had tried to help the Islamic militant group al Qaida — blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks — to establish a training camp in Bly, Oregon, from October 1999 to early 2000.
Abu Hamza, long a contentious figure in Britain, has one eye and a steel hook in place of his right hand from wounds suffered fighting with the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
US attorney general John Ashcroft, speaking at a news conference in New York, said the charge of hostage-taking carried a possible death sentence or life imprisonment.
Ashcroft said the US was actively seeking Abu Hamza’s extradition, but this could be complicated by the fact that Britain has no death penalty.
A justice department official said US and British officials had made deals in the past in similar situations where Washington agreed not to seek the death penalty but declined to discuss this specific case.
Abu Hamza faces up to 100 years in prison if convicted on the other charges.
Egyptian-born Abu Hamza, 47, who is also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, has long upset British and US authorities with his preaching in praise of the September 11 hijacked plane attacks on New York and Washington. He was stripped of his British nationality a year ago on allegations he supported terrorism but he denies any formal links to al Qaida.
He was arrested one day after Ashcroft warned of a potential attack by al Qaida in the next few months and put Americans on alert for seven individuals associated with al Qaida, not including Abu Hamza.
Some security analysts questioned the validity of yesterday’s vague warning, saying it may have had a political purpose as the government counters suggestions that it did not do enough with key intelligence before the 2001 attacks.
They said President George W. Bush, trailing in polls before November’s elections after setbacks in Iraq, may want to shift the focus to US homeland security, an area in which he has had strong support.
Ashcroft said after announcing the indictment that the US war on terrorism was being fought on several fronts. “It is a war where innocent lives are endangered, not only by the terrorist who carries the bomb, but by those who recruit and equip terrorists,” Ashcroft said.
The indictment, which was returned by a federal grand jury on April 19 but made public today, also charges Abu Hamza with providing material support to al Qaida and with supporting violence in Afghanistan.