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Security sources said British police had been studying the possibility of bringing charges for incitement to violence against the preacher who applauded the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
“This case could take months and months to sort out,” a senior security source told Reuters.
If he is to be extradited, Washington would have to guarantee the Egyptian-born cleric will not face the death penalty.
In Washington, a federal law enforcement official said a news conference was planned in New York at 3 p.m. on Thursday British time when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft would announce what the charges are.
Abu Hamza — a hate figure for tabloids, who has one eye and a steel hook in place of his right hand after being wounded fighting in Afghanistan — was stripped of his UK nationality a year ago on allegations he supported terrorism.
He thus became the first person to have his British citizenship revoked after new measures were brought in last year to deport immigrants whose words or actions are deemed to “seriously prejudice” British interests.
Last month, he won nine more months to appeal against the decision. He denies any formal links to al Qaeda.
“We arrested a 47-year-old man at about three o’clock this morning,” a police spokeswoman said of the operation at his London home. Abu Hamza is to appear at a high-security London court later on Thursday.
Asked why he had not been arrested, the Crown Prosecution Service said that effectively the Americans had got there first.
“The position as of yesterday is that we were considering some material that the police had sent to us and were looking to see if there were grounds on which charges could have been brought,” a spokeswoman said.
Geoff Gilbert, professor of law at the University of Essex told Reuters there could be a long legal argument if Abu Hamza challenges the extradition request.
“If he wants to challenge it, I would say it would take somewhere between nine months and two years,” he told Reuters. If Britain also prosecutes, this would sink the case even further into a legal quagmire, he added.
British officials could not immediately clarify whether the U.S. or UK allegations against him would take precedence.
Yemen, where Abu Hamza’s son has served time in prison on terrorism charges, has also long sought his extradition.
“We have evidence he has been involved in terrorist attacks that took place in Yemen in 1998,” the country’s Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told BBC radio.
After moving to Britain years ago and working as a doorman at London discos, Abu Hamza went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to help the Mujahideen fight Soviet occupation troops.
He lost both his forearms and an eye to an explosive device in that conflict. In the 1990s, he returned to the United Kingdom to preach radical Islam in London mosques.
He was shut out of his north London Finsbury Park mosque when it was raided by anti-terrorism police in January 2003 but simply switched to preaching on the street outside.