British Islamist preacher Abu Hamza told his US terror trial on Thursday that he loved Osama bin Laden but refused when invited to join al-Qaeda at its inception.
Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, 56, better known in Britain as Abu Hamza al-Masri has pleaded not guilty in New York to 11 kidnapping and terror counts that pre-date the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre twin towers.
He is charged over the 1998 kidnapping in Yemen of 16 Westerners, conspiracy to set up a US training camp, providing material support to al-Qaeda, assisting the Taliban and sending terror recruits to Afghanistan.
He denies all the charges, but on the stand for a second day said he “loved” bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda shot dead by US troops in Pakistan in 2011.
“He’s a very famous man. Everyone loves him, including myself,” he told the Manhattan courtroom not far from where al-Qaeda reduced the twin towers to rubble.
He never met the al-Qaeda founder and refused to join the terror group when invited, he said.
But he called him “Sheikh bin Laden” and in a video clip justified the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 personnel as a military operation.
For the first time, Abu Hamza announced that his blindness in one eye and amputated hands occurred not in Afghanistan as always thought, but in Pakistan.
He said the accident happened during an explosives experiment with the Pakistani army in August 1993.
The device was prepared by an Egyptian called Abu Khabab, he said, the same name as an expert alleged to have taught Western al-Qaeda recruits in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.
He said the army offered not to round up Arab former mujahideen in exchange for his silence.
“The army said look we’re not going to make any more arrests, just don’t embarrass us about what happened,” the preacher told the jury.
Asked if he fired a weapon in Afghanistan, he confessed: “I wish I had,” saying that instead he shot “a couple of bullets at the communist regime”.
After the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan he said he helped Arab veterans find jobs in Pakistan.
The army wanted those with tactics and explosives experience to help in other areas, Abu Hamza testified.
In 1993 he said he was designing a steel plate with a Pakistani engineer as part of a wider, unidentified project for which “others were designing explosives.”
The work took place in army-issue accommodation in the city of Lahore, where explosives were tested on empty land between two villas on the street, he said.
“I was surprised why the neighbours were not complaining or calling the police. They were all army families,” he said.
The Arab was lax with “health and safety,” he said, and prepared a small container of explosives to which “Commander Ilyas” added a detonator.
Abu Hamza said he picked up the device, which was getting hot, but couldn’t throw it in the bathroom as previously advised because someone was at the sink.
He said it exploded and he fell into a coma, spending a month in a military hospital in Lahore.
Previous reports said that he lost his arms in Afghanistan, but Abu Hamza said “all sorts of stories” had circulated about the reason for his injuries.
Despite often rambling and at times confused testimony, he elicited a few laughs from the court.
He testified to changing his name legally on his British passport in order to travel to Bosnia in the mid-1990s to provide cars and money to Muslim fighters.
Flying to Sarajevo would have been a “death sentence” for an Arab, he said, so he changed his name saying it was “very, very simple.”
“You pay 25 pounds (HK$329) and write out saying I want to be John Travolta and you become John Travolta,” he said to titters in the courtroom.
When describing his time in Bosnia, he twice broke down with emotion.
Asked about the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, Judge Katherine Forrest called a short break as he started snuffling and bowing his head.
The conflict convinced him of the need to train even children in self-defence so that Muslims could live in dignity and not be trampled on by superpowers, he said.
He faces life in prison if convicted.