26 Jun 2014

Abu Qatada’s acquittal is a sign of difficult times in Jordan

Abu Qatada’s acquittal on the first of two terror cases does not come as a huge surprise here in Jordan.

With Isis threatening the kingdom’s border with Iraq and Salafist Muslims in Jordan restive and waving black flags in support of what’s happening, a guilty verdict could have stirred trouble.

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Another of Jordan’s leading Salafist sheikhs, Mohammed Shalabi (known as Abu Sayyaf) has just texted us saying: “We congratulate the Islamic Nation in general and the Salafist movement in particular on the acquittal of Sheikh Abu Qatada, the Palestinian. He hope he will soon be free.”

Abu Qatada, whose real name is Mahmoud Uthman, was born in Bethlehem but has Jordanian citizenship.

Among the preacher’s family in court, there was much excitement. His heavily bearded son, Qatada, embraced his aunts and uncles amid exclamations of “Alhamdulillah” – praise God!

Read more: Abu Qatada acquitted of terrorism conspiracy charge

But after the Islamist preacher’s long legal fight against extradition, which cost British taxpayers somewhere between £1.7m and £3m, the verdict will cause some consternation in London.

Abu Qatada was, after all, sentenced to death in absentia here in Jordan 15 years ago, on exactly the same charges.

Marwan Shehade, a Jordanian expert on extreme Salafist movements – who knows Abu Qatada well – told me outside the court that he believed politics had played a role in the verdict.

In the days running up to the pronouncement by three judges at Amman’s Special Security Court, another informed source had told me “the gates of hell would be opened” if Abu Qatada was handed a long term in jail.

He may yet be convicted in the second case, but his lawyers have dismissed the evidence as “flimsy” – just as the lead judge did in this case. In fact, he said there was no evidence at all.

Yet while evidence linking Abu Qatada to specific conspiracies might be thin on the ground, there is plenty of evidence of his links to al-Qaeda – past and present. Videos of his sermons were found in the Hamburg flat of 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta.

His teachings reportedly influenced numerous extremists, including Richard Reid, the British shoe-bomber.

US court documents declared Abu Qatada “a prominent al-Qaeda spiritual leader, recruiter and financer.” He was known as Osama bin Laden‘s “ambassador” in Europe.

Even after his deportation from Britain last July, as he sat trial on bombing conspiracy charges here in Amman, Abu Qatada has continued to communicate and send messages of Islamic guidance to jihadis fighting in Syria.

In court, he appealed to the jihadist factions in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis – to patch up their differences and submit to the leadership of “Dr Ayman.” He was referring to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s former deputy, who took over as al-Qaeda leader.

Read more: who is Abu Qatada?

Abu Qatada has, however, been dismissive of Isis – which split with al-Qaeda. He said their fighters had been “misled to wage a war that is not holy.”

He criticised the taxes imposed by Isis on Christians in the Syrian city of Raqqa as “distorted and extreme.”

This suggests that the radical cleric could have his uses in Jordan – which also freed Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the kingdom’s most prominent Salafist leader from prison last week. The Jordanian mukhabarat – the intelligence service – will be keeping close tabs on him, as they will on Abu Qatada if he is freed after the final verdict is delivered on 7th September.

The Jordanian government, which is currently attempting to keep a grip on Salafist unrest in the southern town of Ma’an, may be hoping that as the jihadi fires rage in Iraq, their home-grown Salafist leaders will be willing and able to douse the flames before they take hold.

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