NEW YORK — In the second major terrorism-related conviction for federal prosecutors in two months, a jury convicted an Egyptian-born cleric Monday on 11 counts that included taking part in the abduction of Western hostages in Yemen and working to set up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon.
The defendant, Abu Hamza al-Masri, who also goes by Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in September. His conviction, coming after less than one full day of jury deliberations, follows the March conviction of Sulaiman abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden.
Abu Ghaith, who was also tried in New York federal court, was found guilty of charges stemming from his work as a chief spokesman for al-Qaida in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. Prosecutors said he was the highest-ranking al-Qaida official to stand trial in a U.S. civilian court since the attacks.
After Monday’s verdict was announced, Justice Department officials said both cases proved that high-profile terrorism suspects can be successfully tried in civilian courts, rather than having to be sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where justice by military tribunal faces a years-long backlog.
“Once again, our civilian system of justice has proven itself up to the task,” said the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. “As we have seen in the Manhattan federal courthouse in trial after trial … these trials have been difficult, but they have been fair and open and prompt.”
Al-Masri, 56, is a naturalized British citizen who gained fame for his fiery sermons in London’s Finsbury Park Mosque. He was arrested in Britain and extradited to the United States in 2012.
Al-Masri pleaded not guilty to the charges, which stemmed from actions that took place in the late 1990s. He was accused of sending followers to Bly, Ore., a remote hamlet 300 miles southeast of Portland, to set up a terrorist training camp in 1999. Al-Masri also was charged with conspiring with hostage-takers who seized 16 tourists in Yemen in December 1998.
Four European tourists died in a rescue operation. Two Americans who survived the abduction were among the prosecution witnesses.
Al-Masri, who was not with the hostage-takers but who spoke with them via satellite phone during the ordeal, said he was trying to help negotiate a peaceful outcome, not aid the abductors. He spent four days on the stand testifying on his own behalf.
But while his demeanor in court was calm, jurors apparently were more swayed by video and audio recordings of some of Masri’s belligerent sermons, and by prosecution witness testimony.
One witness who was living at the Oregon ranch where al-Masri was accused of trying to establish terrorist training operations recounted an al-Masri follower holding a knife to her brother’s neck to demonstrate “how to properly slice someone’s throat.”