Another Life Sentence for a Terrorist Convicted in Federal Court

A prosecutor called him a global leader of jihad, the judge called his actions evil, and the jury foreman agreed. Now the Egyptian cleric known as Abu Hamza el-Masri, who spent years preaching jihadism in England, will spend the rest of his life behind bars in the U.S.

In a three hour hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ordered a life sentence for Abu Hamza, 56, whose legal name is Mostafa Kamel Mostafa.

Watching the proceedings in the courthouse was Howard Bailynson, who served as the jury foreman in Abu Hamza’s month-long terrorism trial last year.

“I believe the judge issued a fair and just sentence,” said Bailynson, 45, who is a strategic program director for Xerox Corporation, in Westchester County, which is part of the Southern District of New York.

The jury had found Abu Hamza guilty of 11 felony charges related to three events:

  • That he helped coordinate a 1998 hostage taking of 16 Western tourists, including two Americans, in Yemen by a militant group, the Islamic Army of Aden, supplying its leaders with a satellite phone and then speaking to them on it before and during the incident, which resulted in the deaths of four British hostages. Prosecutors said the kidnapping was an attempt to trade hostages for the release of Abu Hamza’s associates, including his stepson, who were in a Yemeni prison at the time.
  • That he sent another follower in 2000 to train underneath an al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan and later sent money to the Taliban.

The jury deliberated only 11 hours over two days. “It wasn’t an easy process,” Bailynson said. Initially the panel was unanimous on only one count. He took “hundreds” of pages of notes.

“All of the preaching, all of the words, really talked to his character and his beliefs, what he wanted to accomplish in his actions,” he said.

Abu Hamza is best known as having been the imam at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. His sermons were sometimes attended by men who later took action to kill Americans, such as “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, who tried and failed to blow up a commercial airliner flying from France to the U.S. in December 2001, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who came to the U.S. in 2001 for flight training and was convicted as part of the 9/11 conspiracy.

Abu Hamza’s years of inflammatory statements and interviews, many videotaped, certainly hurt his defense. He called Osama bin Laden a “hero” whom he “loved;” he said the 2000 al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors in Yemen was a “good thing;” and he said, “Everybody was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center.”

The judge told the defendant today, “You have conveyed a vision of violence as an obligation or duty” based on a “misguided religious view.”

“There were other paths you could have chosen,” the judge said, “to be a community leader of non-violence.”

The Yemen hostage taking—and the four resulting deaths—contributed the most directly to the life sentence. Judge Forest called the satellite phone Abu Hamza supplied an “indispensable tool,” and told him, “Your role was not a minor one.”

“The fact that he made the call and had the conversation with the kidnapper in Yemen was disturbing,” Bailynson said. “He had an opportunity to take a different course and chose not to.”

Two years after the kidnapping, one of the survivors, Mary Quin, went to visit Abu Hamza at his mosque and taped their conversation. “He told her, ‘We didn’t think it would be that bad,’” Bailynson recalled, noting Abu Hamza’s use of the first person. “He didn’t show any remorse.”

The planned paramilitary camp in Oregon never got off the ground, but Bailynson believes the intent was there. He said, “Thank God, in my opinion, the camp failed. As the judge said, had it succeeded there would have been a more more deaths here in the United States.”

A key piece of evidence, the jury foreman said, was a fax from the American who was a catalyst for the camp, James Ujaama, an Abu Hamza acolyte, boasting of a landscape like Afghanistan and the abundance of firearms available to them.

Bailynson said the fax to Abu Hamza showed “his guidance and his support” for the camp.

“Nowhere did we see where he said, ‘No, no, don’t do this.’ The evidence talked loud and clear.”

Ujaama testified for the government about the camp and about escorting Abu Hamza’s follower to Pakistan, the gateway to Afghanistan. “We found that he did send him over there,” said Bailynson, the jury foreman. He pointed to the follower’s signature on a ledger in a Pakistan guest house. “Sometimes if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” he said.

Before the hearing, prosecutors argued in court papers that “the nature of Abu Hamza’s offenses merits a sentence of life imprisonment. The defendant was not merely a vocal proponent of jihad. He was a leader who both acted on his message and directed his followers to participate in violent jihad.”

At the hearing, Assistant United States Attorney Edward Kim added, “Abu Hamza was not convicted for his words…but for his deadly actions.” Kim described Abu Hamza’s “ideology” as “non-Muslims could and should be killed.”

The government’s sentencing memorandum argued a life sentence would deter others from conspiring to commit terrorist acts targeting Americans and would protect the public from the influence of the defendant, whose status has only been “elevated” by prosecutions in the U.S. and U.K. (In 2006, a British court convicted Abu Hamza for incitement to murder, based on his speeches at Finsbury Park. The U.K. incarcerated the imam for eight years before extraditing him to the U.S.).

“I am convinced you do need to be incapacitated,” Judge Forrest told the defendant. “I have every reason to believe if you were free, you would do it again,” she said, the ‘it’ being “support and inspire others to acts of violence.”

She said, “I don’t believe the world will be safe with you in 10 years or 15 years.”

Abu Hamza’s defense attorneys “do not dispute the jury’s findings or in any way intend to diminish the severity of the defendant’s offenses,” they wrote in their sentencing memorandum.

In court, attorney Sam Schmidt sought less than a life sentence for his client “so he could have a chance to spend the last few years of his life with his family.”

But mostly Schmidt pressed for the most comfortable conditions of confinement possible for Abu Hamza, who is blind in one eye, suffers from diabetes, and lost both of his hands in an explosion two decades ago. He needs prosthetics to write, eat, and take care of his personal hygiene. In U.S. custody for the last two years, he has not had access to a shower, sink, or toilet suitable for a double amputee, Schmidt said. He needs someone to clip his toe nails, and when no one does, as in the past two months, the attorney said, “His nails are growing into his skin, and he now has a risk of infection.”

Schmidt asked the judge to issue a recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons that Abu Hamza be incarcerated in a facility with “true disability accommodations” and regular access to medical care, such as a federal prison hospital, not the nation’s “super” maximum security prison in Colorado, where the most notorious convicted terrorists with life sentences reside.

When he had a turn to speak, Abu Hamza continued the plea, saying, “Security issues should not be exaggerated in a way that confiscates human rights.” He said, “I just want to function as a prisoner.”

Abu Hamza maintained his innocence, but he knew what was coming. “Any lenient sentence will actually consume the rest of my life,” he said.

The judge showed no leniency and declined to issue even a recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons regarding Abu Hamza’s conditions of confinement, trusting the agency to undertake the proper screenings and remedies, wherever he is housed.

Abu Hamza also asked to have more contact with his family than prisoners designated as terrorists, with restricted communications, are normally allowed. He complained many of his once-a-month letters to his family in England have been “trashed.” “My family hasn’t done anything,” Abu Hamza said. “I’ve been used to torture them emotionally.”

Abu Hamza is only the latest terrorism defendant in federal court to receive a life sentence. Just a few months ago, former Al Qaeda spokesman and propagandist Sulieman Abu Ghaith, tried and convicted in the same courthouse last year, got a life sentence.

Abu Hamza’s fate, in fact, is characteristic of high-profile convictions. Reid and Moussaoui received life sentences. Men who conspired to backpack bomb New York City subways, and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, received life sentences. So did Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who tried to set of an “underwear bomb” on a Detroit-bound flight. The first (and only) detainee transferred from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to federal court, Ahmed Ghailani, who was convicted for the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, got a life sentence. The list goes on and on.

By comparison, the men charged at Guantanamo—only 10 at last count, including five for 9/11—have languished for years without their military commission proceedings coming close to starting. In the 13 years since Guantanamo opened, more men have died at Guantanamo (9) than have been convicted there (8), and a number of the convictions have been reversed on appeal. Moreover, only one life sentence has been meted out, and it is under appeal.

Since 9/11, the Justice Department boasts more than 500 terrorism-related convictions in federal court, a tested system, that it turns out, delivers harsher and swifter justice than Guantanamo, along with convictions that stand appellate scrutiny.

Outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan today, just blocks from the World Trade Center site, Abu Hamza jury foreman Bailynson told me, “I sleep well at night knowing I made the right decision voting to convict on the 11 counts. Hopefully, it will help the country be a little bit safer.”

He said he hopes fellow citizens who are given the opportunity to be on future terror trials “make the decision to serve, follow the evidence, and do the right thing, because it is our country, and we need to make sure we’re living up to our duties.” 

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About the Author(s)

Phil Hirschkorn

Fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and New York-Based Journalist covering Al Qaeda and terrorism trials for 15 years