LONDON: Radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada was for more than a decade a thorn in the side of British authorities, as they struggled to expel the man they branded an Al Qaeda terrorist even though they never convicted him of any crime.
Now it is for Jordan to decide what to do with the burly 53-year-old preacher — once described by a Spanish judge as being Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe — after he was flown out of Britain early Sunday.
Prime Minister David Cameron once joked that he wished he would put him on the plane himself, such was his frustration at the legal quagmire that Abu Qatada had created for the government.
The bearded father of five who stands more than six feet tall and weighs more than 127 kilos would often be pictured with a zen-like smile as he drove back to his taxpayer-funded London home after yet another release on bail.
He was one of the most prominent of a set of extremist preachers based in London in the 1990s and 2000s including Abu Hamza, the hook-handed Egyptian extradited to the United States last year, and Omar Bakri, who left for Lebanon in 2005.
Videotapes of Abu Qatada’s sermons were also allegedly found in the Hamburg flat of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The radical cleric was born Omar Mahmud Mohammed Otman in Bethlehem in 1960 and is Palestinian by birth, but has Jordanian nationality because the West Bank city was controlled by Jordan at the time.
His early years are shadowy and reportedly involved a visit to Peshawar during the Afghan jihad against Soviet forces, although he insists he never met bin Laden there or anywhere else.
Abu Qatada arrived in Britain in September 1993 with his family on a forged United Arab Emirates passport and claimed asylum on the basis that he had been tortured in Jordan.
He gained refugee status the following year. He and his family lived in a four-bedroom west London house paid for by social welfare benefits, to the fury of the British press.
His fiery oratory soon brought him to the government’s attention as he issued a fatwa in 1995 justifying the killing of converts from Islam, their wives and children in Algeria and gave a speech in 1999 advocating the killing of Jews and praising attacks on Americans.
But it was also in 1999 that he was condemned to death in absentia in Jordan for conspiracy to carry out terror attacks on the American School and the Jerusalem Hotel in Amman the previous year. The sentence was immediately reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour.
In 2000, he was sentenced to 15 years for plotting to carry out terror attacks on tourists during the millennium celebrations in Jordan.
Pressure was growing on Abu Qatada in Britain and he went on the run as Britain rushed through new anti-terror laws to detain security suspects without charge after 9/11.
Armed police arrested him in October 2002 and he has been either in prison or on tough bail conditions ever since.
The British government started deportation proceedings in 2005.
But his appeals went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2012 that Britain could not deport him after all because evidence from two of his co-accused in Jordan was likely to have been obtained through torture.
During his appeals, the British government argued that he had “long-established” links to global extremists including Al Qaeda while British courts heard he was connected to the group’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“Shoe bomber” Richard Reid was said to have sought his help, as did the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man to have been convicted in connection with 9/11.
Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon meanwhile called Abu Qatada Al Qaeda’s “spiritual head” in Europe.
But the preacher kept up his legal battle, which increasingly descended into farce, with the British government on one occasion mixing up the deadline for an appeal to the European court.
A different side of the man the British tabloids dubbed the “hate preacher” also emerged during the proceedings, with his bail conditions in one case being arranged around his ability to take his children to school.
But it was no joke for a British government which had spent $2.7 million on the legal fight, and British interior minister Theresa May worked hard to arrange a treaty with Jordan promising that evidence obtained through torture would not be used in any trial against him.
And while Cameron himself was not waving off Abu Qatada at the airport on Sunday, he will certain breathe a sigh of relief to know he is gone.—AFP