Trial of jihadist cleric expected to highlight ex-Guantanamo detainee's al Qaeda role
The trial of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, better known as Abu Hamza al Masri, began this week in New York with jury selection. Abu Hamza preached in Britain for years. He has well-known ties to various al Qaeda operatives and openly praised the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In 2004, British authorities detained Abu Hamza on terrorism charges. But he was not extradited to the US to stand trial until October 2012. He is charged with supporting al Qaeda, attempting to establish a terrorist training camp in Oregon, and assisting a hostage-taking operation in Yemen in 1998, among other allegations.
Saajid Badat. Image from the BBC.
In the weeks leading up to Abu Hamza's trial, federal prosecutors from the US Department of Justice moved to have their star witness, Saajid Badat, testify via closed circuit television instead of in person. Badat was slated to take part in a shoe bomb attack identical to the one Richard Reid failed to execute in December 2001. Badat later backed out of the plot, however, and was convicted in Britain on terrorism charges.
Prosecutors argued that Badat's testimony is "essential" to the government's case, as his testimony will connect Abu Hamza to other al Qaeda actors, including a former Guantanamo detainee named Feroz Ali Abbasi.
The court subsequently granted the prosecution's motion and Badat is expected to testify, which means that a New York jury will likely hear about Abbasi at length.
US officials have accused Abbasi of agreeing to take part in al Qaeda's attacks against American and Jewish targets. Despite being deemed a "high" risk at Guantanamo, however, Abbasi was transferred to Britain on Jan. 25, 2005.
Badat's expected testimony to the court implicates Abbasi
Feroz Ali Abbasi.
The court received a preview of Badat's testimony on March 5, when the DOJ submitted a filing outlining the reasons why he should be considered a credible and important witness.
The central issue in the DOJ's filing is Abu Hamza's alleged role in sending Abbasi "to receive jihad training in Afghanistan in support of al Qaeda." Badat has repeatedly explained this relationship during interviews with American and British officials.
Another witness, who is not named in the DOJ's filing and identified only as cooperating witness number one ("CW-1"), corroborates parts of Badat's testimony. According to CW-1, Abu Hamza "directed CW-1 to travel with Abbasi from London to Afghanistan," where he was "to deliver Abbasi to Ibn Sheikh al Libi ('Ibn Sheik'), another of the [Abu Hamza's] co-conspirators who was associated with al Qaeda."
CW-1 failed to follow through on Abu Hamza's instructions because he was separated from Abbasi in Pakistan, and only saw Abbasi later in Afghanistan. (Ibn Sheik al Libi would later die while in custody in Libya.)
According to the DOJ's prosecutors, "Badat's testimony will essentially begin where CW-1's testimony ends." Badat "will testify that, in early 2001, he met Abbasi, who was accompanied by Ibn Sheik at the time, in Kandahar."
Upon Ibn Sheik's request, Badat looked after Abbasi, taking him to a guesthouse "run by al Qaeda." During another meeting in Afghanistan, Badat says he saw CW-1 and Abbasi together at al Qaeda's al Farouq training camp, which admitted only those "trusted by al Qaeda." Badat says that Abbasi's training at al Farouq included "weapons, such as AK-47s, explosives, and navigation."
Badat is expected to tell the court that he also acted as a translator during a meeting between Abbasi and "two of al Qaeda's most senior leaders," Abu Hafs al Masri and Saif al Adel. Abu Hafs was al Qaeda's military chief until he died in an American airstrike in late 2001. Saif al Adel remains a senior al Qaeda leader to this day.
The pair of al Qaeda leaders asked Abbasi whether he "would be willing to engage in attacks against American and Jewish targets outside of Afghanistan." According to the Justice Department, "Badat will testify that Abbasi responded affirmatively" to the al Qaeda leaders' request.
Badat will testify about other matters as well, including his "explosives training" under the tutelage of Abu Khabab al Masri, a known al Qaeda trainer. He is also expected to testify regarding his first meeting with Saif al Adl in 1999, when the two discussed the arrest of Abu Hamza's son in Yemen.
The DOJ says that Badat "first provided information about Abbasi's role in a conspiracy with [Abu Hamza] in 2004." And Badat has provided consistent testimony several times since then.
Abbasi's statements to the FBI at Guantanamo corroborate Badat's account
In its filing with the court, the DOJ argued that Badat's account is credible for multiple reasons, including because it is consistent with Abbasi's own statements.
During interviews with FBI agents at Guantanamo in early 2002, Abbasi "provided detailed, inculpatory statements about his time in Afghanistan, all of which are consistent with Badat's prior statements and proposed testimony." To support its case, the Justice Department cites the FBI's 302 forms summarizing the interviews with Abbasi.
Abbasi admitted meeting with Ibn Sheik near Kabul. Ibn Sheikh "then took Abbasi to Kandahar and checked Abbasi into the Institute for Arabic Studies (IAS)," which was also known as the "House of Pomegrantes." Abbasi admitted staying at the guesthouse for a few days, "before attending the al Farouq training camp, where he received military-style training." Abbasi admitted that Ibn Sheikh "outlined ... a two-year training course for him" and that the IAS "was run by al Qaeda."
Abbasi also told FBI agents that he met a man known as "Abu Issa," which was the alias used by Badat.
Perhaps most importantly, according to the DOJ's filing, Abbasi admitted to FBI agents that "Abu Issa" (Badat) had "translated for Abbasi during his meeting with Abu Hafs" al Masri. It was during this meeting that Abbasi was allegedly asked about his willingness to attack American and Jewish targets.
Leaked JTG-GTMO file
A leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, dated Nov. 11, 2003, contains some of the same details included in the DOJs filing. The JTF-GTMO file contains additional details about Abbasi's ties to Abu Hamza and other al Qaeda actors as well.
Abbasi "called" Abu Hamza, who is a "known Islamic extremist and al Qaeda member," the file reads. Abu Hamza "invited" Abbasi "to attend Friday's prayer at the Finsbury Mosque [in London] for instructions on how to join the jihad." The file indicates that Abbasi attended training at al Farouq before being selected for more "advanced training."
After training, Abbasi traveled to Kandahar, where he met with Saif al Adel (whose name is misspelled in the JTF-GTMO file), which is consistent with Badat's and Abbasi's testimony outlined above. But according to JTF-GTMO, Abbasi also met with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and David Hicks, an Australian who was held at Guantanamo after training with Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda. If this is accurate, then Abbasi's al Qaeda connections go beyond the details in the DOJ's filing.
Abbasi was then selected to attend "an information collection course that taught him how to select targets for terrorism." After this, he was asked if he would take part in a "martyrdom mission." He replied, "Yes."
JTF-GTMO considered Abbasi to be a "confirmed member" of al Qaeda, who had "pledged to martyr himself in Jihad against the West and the United States in particular."
Abbasi was also deemed "a high threat to the US, its interests and its allies." JTF-GTMO even considered Abbasi "a candidate for prosecution as a terrorist" in a military court. It was recommended that he be "retained under" the Department of Defense's control.
Instead, less than two years later, Abbasi was transferred to Britain, where he was freed. Abbasi's transfer goes to show that the US government has transferred detainees from Guantanamo who are strongly suspected of being tied to al Qaeda's senior leaders. The evidence against Abbasi is considered so strong, in fact, that it is being cited by the Department of Justice in legal filings more than a decade after Abbasi was first interviewed by the FBI.
And now the man who allegedly sent Abbasi to Afghanistan for training in the first place stands trial in New York.