From Muslim teacher to “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”, Abu Qatada has been presented in many ways – but is he a danger?
The Muslim cleric, who arrived in the United Kingdom 19 years ago, has once again been released on bail as a part of the government’s ongoing battle to deport him to Jordan. It is the fourth time Qatada has been released from detention in the past seven years.
Qatada, real name Omar Othman, has variously been considered a refugee, a tool to fight extremism, a terrorist financier and a dangerous hate preacher during his time in the UK.
Quoting Spanish investigative judge Baltasar Garzon, the media regularly referred to him as “Osama bin Laden‘s right-hand man in Europe” (he has been referred to as such 635 times in UK national newspapers in the past 10 years), though the judge’s comment was more general than that.
Mr Garzon called Qatada, in an indictment issued following the 11 September terrorist attacks, “the spiritual leader of the mujahedeen in Europe”.
The statement supports UK court conclusions that Qatada is extremely well connected with terrorist groups across the world. A special immigration appeals commission hearing in 2007 heard the “reach and the depth of his influence in that respect is formidable, even incalculable”.
That influence was as a spiritual leader, the hearing heard, providing religious justification for acts of terrorism. The recipients of this advice included al-Qaeda, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).
He also provided advice to individuals, court documents say, including Rachid Ramda, the former leader of the GIA in the UK who was later extradited to France and jailed for life for his involvement in the 1995 Paris Metro bombings.
When terrorists wanted to commit an attack in the name of Islam, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) concluded, they turned to Qatada for the religious “thumbs-up”.
Qatada, for his part, has said that he condemned the actions of various terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and said that he had been vilified in the UK. He said he was an Islamic scholar who was consulted by hundreds of people on a weekly basis looking for advice on all aspects of life.
Qatada arrived in the UK in September 1993, with his wife and three children, using a forged United Arab Emirates passport. He claimed asylum on the grounds that he had been tortured in Jordan and feared he would be tortured again if he returned.
At a time when large numbers from Islamic countries were moving to the UK, MI5 turned to Qatada for help. They held meetings with the preacher, hoping he could use his influence to quell Islamic extremism. However, evidence began to emerge of extremist preaching by the cleric.
In March 1995 Qatada issued an “influential fatwa” from his base at the Four Feathers Social Club on Baker Street that justified the killing of the wives and children of “apostates” (those who reject Islam) in order to stop the oppression if Muslims in Algeria, SIAC said.
SIAC said it believed this fatwa was used to justify terrorist acts in Algeria, and that the fatwa was understood to extend to “all the Algerian authorities in the broadest sense”.
The organisation also listed various instances in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Qatada issued various sermons and statements justifying the killing of non-believers by Muslims, especially Americans and Jews, and calling for God’s help in jihad against the west, SIAC says.
He was arrested in February 2001 by police investigating UK links to a terrorist cell in Frankfurt. Insufficient evidence was found to bring charges against him, but during searches of his addresses police found £170,000 in UK and foreign currency, including an envelope containing £805 and a note saying it was bound for the mujahedeen in Chechnya.
Qatada has maintained a degree of distance from al-Qaeda, documents from SIAC say, which could reveal his wish to maintain independence or to prevent his deportation.
However, he has spoken in support of bin Laden. He told the BBC in 2001 that he saw bin Laden as “a Muslim man who defends the cause of his nation against its enemies”, and he said such a man should be “supported by every Muslim”.
In 2002 a poem attributed to Qatada also appeared on the website of al-Quds, an Arabic newspaper. SIAC said the poem praised bin Laden and glorify the 11 September attacks.
In January 2002, it was reported that Muslims attending the Fatima Centre mosque, where Qatada was now based, believed him to be the head of al-Qaeda in Europe. It was also believed that he was raising funds to send Muslims to be trained in Afghanistan.
In the same month, German police investigating the 11 September bombings found videos of Qatada’s sermons in the flat of Mohammed Atta, one of the aeroplane hijackers.
Despite evidence of radical sermons and the potential financing of terrorists, Qatada has never been charged with any offences in the UK – unlike another renowned Islamic preacher, Abu Hamza (see graphic, above). However, his deportation to Jordan is based on two court cases which found him guilty of conspiring to cause explosions.
The cases relate to the two successful bomb attacks on the American School and Jerusalem Hotel in Amman in 1998, and a failed plot to target western and Israeli tourist hotspots to coincide with celebrations around the new millennium.
Qatada’s role, the Jordanian courts found, was to suggest targets for the 1998 attacks and to congratulate terrorists following their success, and to provide financial assistance to plotters in the millennium conspiracy.
His deportation to Jordan has been blocked because it is believed that evidence to be used against him, namely statements from witnesses, will have been obtained by torture. Home Secretary Theresa May had received assurances that such evidence would not be used in a Jordanian retrial of Qatada, but SIAC allowed Qatada to appeal his deportation saying it could not be sure this would be the case.
For his part Qatada also denies much that has been said against him. He says that the 1995 fatwa was “misunderstood”. He says he has condemned the actions of al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and said that he would have opposed the 11 September attacks if he had been asked.
He said that police had not indicated to him, up until 2001, that any of his activities, preaching or fundraising, were illegal, and said that any money he had raised was not for any purpose he regarded as illegal.
He is a scholar, he says, operating in a world in which the rebirth of an interest in Islam was taking place.