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.


Taliban under attack in Badghis province

In this file photo, Afghan National Army soldiers carry out an exercise during a live firing at the Afghan Military Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan officials say around 100 soldiers fled their posts and tried to cross into neighboring Turkmenistan during a weeklong battle with the Taliban, in the latest setback for the country's battered security forces. (AP)
Updated 18 March 2019
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Taliban under attack in Badghis province

  • Several government troops fleeing the Taliban rampage crossed into neighboring Turkmenistan
  • In a statement, the ministry had said that 50 Taliban combatants had been killed

KABUL: Afghanistan’s government launched a ground and air offensive on Monday to flush out Taliban insurgents from a key area in the northwestern province of Badghis, which is close to the border with Turkmenistan, officials said.

The focal point of the operation was the Bala Murghab district where, a few days ago, the Taliban had captured dozens of government forces in addition to overrunning several parts of the district, which serves as a gateway to the northern areas for the insurgents.

Several government troops fleeing the Taliban rampage crossed into neighboring Turkmenistan, officials said. 

One provincial official and a lawmaker from the province, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that Turkmenistan was due to hand over the troops to Afghanistan on Monday.

Sayed Mohmmad Musa, a lawmaker from the province, said that hundreds of government troops have taken part in the operation, which had resulted in the deaths of several of the Taliban’s top commanders.

“Through the operation, the government wants to not only regain the control of the district, but is also trying to free those forces who either had to join the Taliban or were captured by them several days ago,” he said by phone.

“There is heavy fighting there and the government wants to end the Taliban threat because it is a strategic location,” he said.

Meanwhile, spokesmen for the defense and interior ministries did not answer repeated calls for comment about the government’s operation and about the Taliban’s rampage days ago.

In a statement released earlier, the ministry had said that 50 Taliban combatants had been killed.

There were conflicting reports about the number of troops who were captured by the Taliban and those who had fled to Turkmenistan, while the Taliban said 90 soldiers had surrendered.

The development comes amid continuing efforts in recent months by US diplomats and Taliban delegates for finding a peaceful settlement to the war. 

Both the Taliban and government forces, backed by the US military, have stepped up their attacks in a number of areas in the country.

Ahmad Saeedi, an analyst from Badghis, said the remoteness of the province, changes in the leadership of the ministry and confusion among troops about the peace process were some of the factors for the Taliban’s gains in Badghis.

“The time of US and Taliban formally announcing a deal has become closer; this has disheartened some troops in some parts of the country to keep on fighting,” Saeedi told Arab News.

Mirza Mohammed Yarmand, a military analyst and retired general, agreed. He told Arab News: “Unfortunately, the schism and differences among the political leaders of the country have caused disruption and slowness in the conduct of responsibilities of officers in the battlefield.”

He added: “Logistical shortcomings, the amount of attacks conducted by the enemy, (the government’s) failure to transport on time the war casualties from the battle ground and the amount of time officers spend in war zone, are among the reasons for incidents such as Bala Murghab.”

“When there is difference among the leaders that certainly impacts the moral of troops,” he said.