In a courtroom artist’s sketch, Mary Quin testifies in the terror trial of Egyptian cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa in the Southern District in Manhattan on Wednesday (AP/Elizabeth Williams)
Mary Quin told a rapt jury how she stepped on the head of her wounded kidnapper and gained enough leverage to rip an assault rifle from his hand during a 1998 gun battle in Yemen.
“I turned back and I reached down and I grabbed the barrel of his AK-47 … he grabbed the stock, so we were in this tug-of-war,” she said Wednesday. “I was screaming at him. He was screaming at me.”
The New Zealand native was describing her escape from a 24-hour kidnapping ordeal that prosecutors say was aided and abetted by defendant Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, an imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, a hotbed of radical Muslim activity.
She told the federal jury about an extraordinary conversation she had with Mustafa, whom she interviewed at the mosque in October 2000, with a tape recorder on, while working on a book about the kidnapping.
Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian McGinley played the tape of the conservation for the jury, and on it, Mustafa openly concedes to Quin that he was called by lead kidnapper Abu Hassan from Yemen during the hostage-taking.
The attacks were allegedly motivated by a desire to swap hostages for several British citizens and adherents of Mustafa, including a stepson of Mustafa, who had been arrested for anti-government activity in Yemen just five days before the kidnapping.
Quin on the tape asks Mustafa if he provided the satellite phone used by Hassan during the kidnapping.
“Yeah, perhaps,” Mustafa responds.
Quin, the author of “Kidnapped in Yemen,” identified the white-bearded, glasses-wearing Mustafa from the witness stand as the “man in the light grey-blue sweater” seated in Judge Katherine Forrest’s courtroom.
The Eygptian-born Mustafa, 56, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, lost both his hands in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation. He was convicted in 2006 and served time in Britain for inciting his followers to murder Jews and other non-Muslims in a series of sermons at the mosque from 1997 to 2000.
He was extradited to the United States in 2012 and is now on trial for aiding al-Qaida and the Taliban, the kidnapping in Yemen that ended with the deaths of four of Quin’s fellow tourists during the gunfight, and for exhorting men to train for jihad, or holy war, in part by setting up a training camp in Bly, Ore.
Mustafa took the witness stand late Wednesday to begin what is expected to be lengthy testimony in his own defense, repeatedly saying the word “never” with a slight English accent as defense lawyer Joshua Dratel ran down the list of allegations.
Later, when Dratel asked Mustafa about his religious and political beliefs, Mustafa said he had seen prison and is unafraid.
“If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity and my beliefs, then I don’t want it,” he replied.
Quin, who heads a government agency in New Zealand, is also a U.S. citizen from her days as an executive at Xerox in Rochester, N.Y.. She came to the United States to be educated in 1976 and became a citizen in 1993.
She is the daughter of a New Zealand police officer who taught her to look at her watch if she ever witnessed a crime.
So Quin said knew that it was “3 minutes to 11″ on the morning of Dec. 28, 1998 when her tourist convoy of five land cruisers was stopped and seized by armed men.
One of the land cruisers was able to speed away, leaving four cars behind with 16 hostages. With kidnappers now at the wheel, the convoy drove for about 55 minutes into the desert, where they were told to sit on blankets in the shade.
The kidnappers, she said, were dressed in wraparound skirts, “shabby suit jackets” and head scarfs, some concealing their faces. Some wore camouflage and the tourists gave them nicknames such as “Yellow Pants” and “Purple Skirt.”
Quin said the leader appeared to be Hussan, and when he inspected their passports, she gave him her New Zealand passport because “I felt that in that part of the world it was safer to be a New Zealander than an American.”
They later discovered her American passport.
Hussan, through an interpreter, told the group, “We are Mujahadeen and you are not responsible for the bombings in Iraq but your countries are.”
Hussan explained that friends of theirs had been arrested and imprisoned in Yemen and the goal of the kidnapping was a swap for the prisoners. He also told them not to be afraid, prompting one of Quin’s colleagues to point to one of the kidnappers casually tossing a grenade from hand to hand and to ask, “How can we not be afraid?”
The next morning, at around 11, shots rang out and intensified as government forces descended. The kidnappers used their hostages as human shields, making them stand on a berm while they fired back at the authorities, sometimes from between the legs of the hostages.
The gunfire, she said, was “getting increasingly intense,” and the hostages “could see some shells and some puffs of smoke in the air and hear bullets.”
After a gun battle that lasted more than 45 minutes, Quin said, “Purple Skirt” put the muzzle of the gun to her spine and ordered her forward toward the area where government troops were firing.
They were in the middle of an open field, she said, and she feared he would fire the weapon and “had the image of my spine shattering.”
Then, she said, “I saw Purple Skirt was lying on the dirt behind me. I saw he was struggling. Then I realized he had been shot.”
That’s when she reached for the gun, seized the weapon and fled for safety. It was only later that she realized four of her fellow travelers had been killed.
Forrest issued a key ruling on Wednesday for the prosecution on Mustafa’s testimony.
During opening arguments, Dratel told the jury that British intelligence “approached [Mustafa] repeatedly to be a moderating influence and to help them know when trouble was going to happen.”
But Forrest said Mustafa would not be allowed to discuss his communication with British intelligence because it would be a back-door way of implying to the jury a defense of “authorization”—that officials allowed him to be in touch with Hassan.
The government rested its case mid-afternoon, and Dratel moved for a judgment of acquittal on all counts.
Of the Yemen counts, Dratel said, “You can compile all the inferences and they don’t come close to permitting a rational jury to find that Mr. Mustafa is part of a conspiracy.”
The motion was denied.
McGinley, who is joined by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Edward Kim and John Cronan, began the day by entering into evidence several stipulations, including letters seized from Mustafa’s home during a March 15, 1999, search by a branch of New Scotland Yard.
The letters are from Mustafa’s step-son and his son, both arrested by Yemeni authorities. Both letters speak of going to paradise after a successful martyrdom operation.
McGinley put the arrests into evidence to lay the groundwork for Quin’s testimony about Mustafa’s connection to what he called “the situation” in Yemen.
Of the kidnapping, Mustafa told Quin, “Islamically, it was justified.”