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Sheikh Abu Hamza: A Profile

SUNDAY 16th March 2003
In 1979, Mustafa Kamal Mustafa stepped off a plane at Heathrow, his doorway to the West, what he called "a paradise, where you could do anything you wanted".

Twenty four years later, this ambitious Egyptian is one of the most controversial Islamic figures in Britain. He is Sheikh Abu Hamza, the hook-handed, one-eyed imam of the North London mosque.

From his position at the helm of Supporters of Sharia, he preaches dedication to Islamic law, offers praise for Osama bin Laden, and calls the events of September 11 acts of self-defence. But Abu Hamza remains, on the face of it, a very English citizen.

His 1980 marriage to a Briton secured his UK citizenship, and he lives in a council house in West London. Before his reinvention as Islamic proselyte, Hamza carried out a series of jobs, from hotel receptionist to doorman at a Soho peepshow. Of his pre-cleric life, the fundamentalist says only, "I was not a very good Moslem."

He receives incapacity benefit for his disabilities, constant reminders of his militant history. Hamza claims to be the victim of a landmine, which exploded when he was working for the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan in 1993.

The preacher was questioned by Scotland Yard officers in 1999 about terrorist offences in Yemen. Although Hamza was released without charge, Yemeni authorities are still after him, and his son Mohammed served a three-year prison-sentence there, for his involvement in a bombing campaign.

More recently, Hamza's own Finsbury Park base was raided, and 150 police officers caused outrage among local Muslims by entering the holy ground. Although "shoe bomber" Richard Reid used to pray at the mosque, its self-styled sheikh has always denied involvement in terrorism.

Where other authorities have failed, the Charity Commission may yet succeed in thwarting Hamza's prayer-power. The sheikh is accused of making "inflammatory and highly political" speeches at mosque meetings. If it finds him guilty, the Commission will exclude Hamza for flouting charity laws to his own political ends.

Until that happens, the man who calls Osama bin Laden "a good guy" will have a platform to vent his anti-Western spleen. A citizen of a country that values above all its freedom of speech, Sheikh Abu Hamza must relish more than most the benefits of his British passport.