Terror suspect laughs and cries on the stand

British Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri in London in

British Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri in London in 2004. (Credit: Getty Images / Bruno Vincent)

Accused British terror cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri didn't directly address the charges he faces in his federal court in Manhattan testimony Thursday, but he laughed, cried twice, lectured on Muslim oppression and told a story about how he lost both hands and an eye.

Previous reports about how the radical imam became a glass-eyed double amputee have ranged from a mishap making bombs or clearing land mines in Afghanistan to, he said, a version in which his hands were cut off in Saudi Arabia as a punishment for thievery.

But the truth, he claimed, was that he suffered his injury heroically trying to dispose of an explosive compound in 1993 while working as a civil engineer for the Pakistani army on a project to block roads in military emergencies.


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The plan involved triggering a landslide in a mound of dirt stored by a roadway. But at a planning session, the explosives expert mistakenly began a chemical reaction in a combustible mixture, Abu Hamza said. He grabbed the container and ran for a bathroom.

"I went to throw it but someone was standing at the sink," he testified. "It went off." The story could not be independently verified.

Abu Hamza, 56, also known as Mostafa Kamel Mostafa, played a central role in the rise of radical Islam in London as the head of the Finsbury Park mosque. He is charged with aiding the 1998 kidnapping of 16 tourists in Yemen, conspiring to set up a jihad training camp in Bly, Oregon, in 1999, and supporting al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Instead of discussing the charges, he spent Thursday describing his involvement as an engineer, relief worker and commentator in conflicts that riddled Muslim communities in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Algeria during the 1990s -- testimony that could set the stage for portraying his later behavior as defensive.

Abu Hamza broke down weeping when describing the infamous massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serb troops at Srebrenica in 1995. He said the lesson was that Muslims couldn't rely on superpowers, and needed to be prepared to defend themselves -- which defense lawyers say was the vision for the Oregon training camp.

"Weak nations are not prepared," he said. "They encourage the wolf to eat. That is the law of the world. You have to be prepared."

He did not discuss a videotaped interview shown at trial in which he said he was "happy" about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but expressed mixed views about Osama bin Laden.

He said at one point that he "loved" the late al-Qaida leader, but also criticized him for endangering the inhabitants of Afghanistan with his attacks, recalling bombing raids that followed al-Qaida's attacks on two U.S. embassies in 1998.

"Afghanistan got beaten up," Abu Hamza said. "But al-Qaida and the people knew it was going to happen . . . had their own places to hide."

In one light moment during the testimony, the accused terror preacher also exchanged a laugh with U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest when he explained the process of changing his name so that his Arab identity wasn't obvious when he flew into Bosnia during the 1990s.

"It's very simple," he said. "Pay 25 pounds, say, 'I want to be John Travolta.' You're John Travolta!"

"Did you go with 'John Travolta'?" the judge asked.

Abu Hamza got the joke, and said had chosen a less famous name.

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