Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Kim points towards Musfafa Kamel Mustafa, the radical Islamist cleric facing U.S. terrorism charges, during opening statements before Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest Thursday. (Reuters/Jane Rosenberg)
Accused al Qaida conspirator Mustafa Kamel Mustafa tried to buck his legal team Monday morning and deliver his own opening statement to the jury, but was rebuffed by the judge.
Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest told attorneys just after 9 a.m. that she had received a five-page letter from Mustafa asking to address the jury.
Forrest denied the application, telling Mustafa there was no provision for “hybrid representation,” or a combination of pro se advocacy and representation by his lead counsel, Joshua Dratel and Jeremy Schneider.
Instead, Dratel opened for the defense, telling the jury that Mustafa, a leader at the radical Finsbury Park mosque in London, never lifted a finger to help al Qaida.
Mustafa “never harmed America or anyone else. He never gave directions or orders to people,” Dratel said.
He urged the jurors to “keep your eye on the evidence, not the rhetoric,” and reminded them, “You’re here not to judge his philosophy or ideology.”
Dratel opened after Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Kim presented a dramatically different view of the defendant, whom he called by his adopted name: Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Kim laid out the central charges against the defendant—that he funded and promoted a training camp for al Qaida fighters in Bly, Oregon, that he sent two young men to Afghanistan for terror training and that he played a key role in a 1998 hostage taking in Yemen that ended in the deaths of four tourists.
“This is a simple case,” Kim said. “Abu Hamza was committed to war against non-Muslims and in that war he dispatched young men around the world” to train “to fight and kill.”
Dratel said his client would testify in his own defense. He explained to the jury that Mustafa lost both his arms while performing relief work in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union was driven out in 1989.
Dratel also prepared the jury for government evidence of statements, recordings and interviews the fiery preacher delivered in his long career and painted him as an advocate for Muslim defense, not a terrorist.
Dratel said his client said outrageous things but insisted that was his way of keeping more warlike people “in the conversation.”
Mustafa, he said, liked to say “there is a third way between Osama bin Laden on one extreme and George W. Bush on the other.”
“He’s said a lot of harsh things, anti-USA, anti-Israel, anti-West, anti-aggression, anti-oppression, maybe just anti-government,” Dratel said. “He’s also said things that are anti-al Qaida” and made statements against “other terrorist groups and their tactics that he disagreed with.”
Dratel repeatedly told the jury that context was everything and most of the events they would hear about took place long ago.
“This is what happened before 9/11, and before 9/11,” he said, “it was a different world,” and “a very different context.”
Mustafa’s advocacy, he said, was on behalf of Muslims in several areas where the United States was on their side— the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the fighting in Chechnya, and the ethnic persecution in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But Kim, who is prosecuting the case with Assistant U.S. Attorneys John Cronan and Ian McGinley, said the defendant was an instigator and conspirator of the highest order.
He said the jury would hear evidence that arms and chemical weapons suits were found in the Finsbury Park mosque when it was raided by British authorities in 2004.
Along with two men he recruited for the camp in Oregon, Kim said, the defendant sent compact discs with instructions on setting up the camp. He said the jury would also see a letter of support to Osama bin Laden and a second letter explaining the purpose of the camp.
And Kim said that, in October 1998, two months before the hostage taking in Yemen, “the defendant issued an ominous warning to the world—his message was to stay out of Yemen.”
The prosecutor said that Abu Hamza [Mustafa] provided the hostage takers with a satellite phone, “an essential tool for hostage takers in the desert” and purchased additional minutes for the phone.
Once the hostages were taken, Kim said, “You will learn the gunmen spoke with Abu Hamza,” and when the Yemeni military launched a rescue operation, the gunmen “used the hostages as human shields.”
Kim said the government plans to call as witnesses two hostages who escaped the ordeal.
On the day of the rescue operation, hostage Mary Quin “managed to break free and run through the desert,” Kim said. Two years later, “she did an amazing thing”—she went to the Finsbury Park mosque and asked Abu Hamza about the hostage taking. She also recorded the exchange.
“You will hear the defendant admit he gave the satellite phone the hostage takers,” Kim said. “You will hear him say it was justified.”
Dratael tried to minimize the Quin evidence when he addressed the jury and expanded on his theme of Mustafa as mediator.
“The reason [the hostage takers] reached out to him was as an intermediary to negotiate the release of the hostages,” Dratel said.
In fact, Dratel added, his client’s warning about Yemen was intended to prevent “people from getting hurt.”
“He raised the alarm in the UK,” and was “extensively questioned” by authorities right after the rescue raid and was never charged, Dratel said. “You’ll hear he played the role of mediator often.”
Dratel said British intelligence relied on Mustafa, as they “approached him repeatedly to be a moderating influence and to help them know where the trouble was going to happen.”