Media exaggerated my image: Preacher

Updated 09 May 2014
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Media exaggerated my image: Preacher

NEW YORK: For years, the London imam Abu Hamza Al-Masri has been known as much for the distinctive metal hook he wore in place of his missing right hand as for his fiery sermons.
On Thursday, for what appeared to be the first time, Abu Hamza claimed he lost both hands and one eye in an accidental explosion in Pakistan two decades ago.
His account, which came as he testified in New York at his trial on terrorism charges, conflicted with media stories that he suffered the injuries while fighting the Soviets alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The preacher said his image as a veteran of the Afghan war was exaggerated by the press.
“Unfortunately, the reputation is larger than the reality,” he told a jury in Manhattan federal court, in a baritone that carried across the room.
The British preacher told his US terror trial 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 9/11.
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 Taleban 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 2000-01.
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 neighbors 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 ($42 today) and write out saying I want to be John Travolta and you become John Travolta,” he said to titters in the courtroom.
Of his time in Bosnia, he twice teared up 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-defense so that Muslims could live in dignity and not be trampled on by superpowers.
He faces life in prison if convicted.


New US-bound migrant caravan enters Mexico

Updated 1 min 21 sec ago
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New US-bound migrant caravan enters Mexico

  • Caravans of migrants seeking safety in numbers have taken center stage in the raging debate in the US over Trump’s proposed border wall
  • The latest caravan is smaller than the one that swelled to 7,000 migrants late last year

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico: Hundreds of Central Americans entered Mexico illegally as the latest migrant caravan trying to reach the US began crossing the Mexican-Guatemalan border en masse Friday.
Not content to wait five days for the humanitarian visas Mexico is offering them, several hundred migrants took to make-shift rafts to cross the Suchiate River, which forms the frontier, or snuck across the loosely guarded border bridge overnight, AFP correspondents said.
Their advance could trigger a new Twitter firestorm from US President Donald Trump, who has urged Mexico to halt such caravans, and who tweeted early Friday: “Another big Caravan heading our way. Very hard to stop without a Wall!“
Hundreds more of the 2,000 migrants in the caravan gathered patiently on the border bridge, trickling into Mexico as the authorities processed them.
The authorities will set up checkpoints in southern Mexico to make migrants who snuck into the country register for visas, said Alejandro Encinas, under-secretary for migration.
“We are informing all of them that they must comply with our country’s laws,” he said.
Caravans of migrants seeking safety in numbers have taken center stage in the raging debate in the United States over Trump’s proposed border wall, which has led to a government shutdown that is now the longest in history.
The latest caravan is smaller than the one that swelled to 7,000 migrants late last year, leading Trump to warn of an “invasion” by “hardened criminals” and send thousands of troops to the US-Mexican border.
Mexican authorities are urging the migrants to arrive legally and offering expedited “visitor cards” that let them work and access basic health care in Mexico.
So far, 969 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have registered under the program, receiving bracelets that they can exchange for visitor cards in five days.
But hundreds more ignored the offer.
“A lot of us aren’t interested in waiting five days. Our goal is to reach the United States,” said Alma Mendoza, a nurse and single mother making the trip with her three children.
“We don’t have food, much less money. We want to reach our destination,” she said.
Other migrants said they would consider staying in Mexico.
“My goal is to reach the United States, but if I can’t I’ll stay in Mexico and work. They’re giving us an opportunity,” said Christian Medrano, 33, an industrial technician.
Mexico meanwhile announced a fresh policy under which Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence with the intention of reaching the United States may remain in Mexico for a year.
The decision “recognizes the importance of our relationship with Central America,” especially El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, said Tonatiuh Guillen, commissioner of the Mexican National Institute of Migration.
The caravan set out Tuesday from San Pedro Sula, in northwestern Honduras, and has grown along the way.
The migrants are mostly fleeing poverty and crime in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Brutal street gangs have made the three countries among the most violent in the world.
Another caravan of about 200 migrants set out Wednesday from El Salvador and is now in southern Mexico, possibly poised to join up with the first.
Many of the migrants are traveling in families, often with small children.
They have covered about 700 kilometers so far, and have roughly 4,000km to go if they take the same route as the last caravan, to Tijuana, across from San Diego, California.
When that caravan reached Mexico in October, the authorities tried to stop it with riot police. But the migrants stormed in anyway, tearing down border fences and crossing the river illegally when police refused to let them through.
Since then, Mexico has gotten a new government, led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist.
“AMLO,” as the new president is widely known, has promised to treat migrants more humanely than previous administrations. But he has also sought to stay on Trump’s good side with talk of reducing migrant flows.
The October caravan largely dispersed after reaching Tijuana.
US Border Patrol agents fought back two attempts by the migrants to rush the border, firing tear gas to disperse them.
Some have since found work in Mexico, some crossed the border and filed asylum claims, and many returned home. About 400 remain in a shelter set up for them in Tijuana that is slated to be closed on Wednesday.