WITH a hook in place of his right hand, and an unseeing left eye, Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri makes the perfect hate figure. In many sections of the press, he is seen as a monster, synonymous with Islamic extremism in the UK.
The fundamentalist cleric leads the North Central London Mosque, where seven men were arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity yesterday. Police uncovered a mini-arsenal of weapons.
The Charity Commission has accused Sheikh Hamza, 45, of delivering "inflammatory and highly political" speeches to prayer meetings at the mosque, in Finsbury Park. In April last year, the commission suspended him, though he has continued to preach. It has now warned him that he faces being excluded as an agent of its trustees if he is found to have flouted charitable status laws by using the centre for political ends.
Born Mustafa Kamel Mustafa in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1958, Sheikh Hamza was the son of an army officer from an aspirational middle-class family. He came to the UK in 1979, aged 20, and claims to have studied civil engineering at Brighton University, then Brighton Polytechnic. In his early years in the UK, he worked as a doorman at a Soho peep show - an experience he has since said helped inspire his strict Islamic faith.
In 1981, Sheikh Hamza married Valerie Fleming, a Briton, and was granted UK citizenship. It is about this time that he is believed to have changed his name, for religious reasons. The couple had a son, Mohammed, but divorced five years later. She has since said his religious beliefs became more radical after they wed.
In the 1990s, Sheikh Hamza travelled to Afghanistan, to assist rebels fighting the Soviet occupation. He says that while clearing land-mines for the mujahideen, a device exploded, severely injuring both his hands and blinding him in his left eye. He has also claimed to have worked in the Muslim community in Bosnia.
He shot to public attention in the UK in January 1999, following the arrest of five British Muslims in Yemen. The men were among a gang accused of planning a bombing campaign against British targets in Yemen. Among those arrested were Sheikh Hamza’s son, Mohammed, then aged 17, and his step-son from his second marriage, Mohsin Ghalain. The gang was convicted of terrorist offences and jailed for between three and seven years each. Following the arrests, a Yemeni court heard that he had masterminded the foiled campaign from the Finsbury Park mosque. The court also claimed to have evidence that Sheikh Hamza and the gang had links with Abu Hassan, the radical fundamentalist leader who kidnapped 16 Western hostages in Yemen just after Christmas in 1998. Four Britons were killed when the Yemen security forces launched a rescue mission.
In March 1999, anti-terror police arrested Sheikh Hamza at his four-bedroomed council home in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. He was held for several days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by detectives investigating links to terror groups abroad. He was later released without charge.
He has always maintained his innocence in relation to all such allegations.
Following the 11 September attacks on the US, he said: "Many people will be happy ... America is a crazy superpower and what was done was done in self-defence."
He hailed as martyrs those who died in the name of Islam. He also runs Supporters of Sharia, a group dedicated to the rule of Islamic law. It conducts much of its business via an internet web-site. Last year, he addressed a rally in central London called by the radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, where members spoke of their support for al-Qaeda. Sheikh Hamza denies US claims that he recruits for al-Qaeda, but he has publicly praised its leader, Osama Bin Laden, claiming: "Bin Laden is a good guy. Everyone likes him in the Muslim world.
"There is nothing wrong with the man and his beliefs."
He has also warned the UK about attacking Iraq: "If you [Britain] were on the agenda, you would see suicide bombings everywhere like in Israel. Stay away [from Iraq] and preserve your people."