|MI5 wanted me to escape, claims cleric
London Guardian 10/21/01: Antony Barnett
Original Link: http://www.observer.co.uk/Distribution/Redirect_Artifact/0,4678,0-578140,00.html
The London-based Islamic cleric Abu Qatada, accused by America of being a key member of Osama bin Laden's network, claims British security services offered him a chance to escape to Afghanistan.
Abu Qatada, whose Bolton bank account was frozen last week when he was named on a US list of suspected terrorists, told The Observer that MI5 approached intermediaries to offer him a passport and an Iranian visa so he could leave the country.
Home Office sources last night confirmed that the presence of Abu Qatada was 'of deep concern' to the British intelligence service. But they admitted there was not enough hard evidence to bring charges against him. The authorities cannot deport him to Jordan because the country still has the the death penalty.
The Palestinian-born cleric, who has been living in west London on benefits since he was granted political asylum in 1993, refused the offer of escape. 'I do not trust this government,' he said. 'If I get on a plane, I am afraid I will be shot or handed over to the Jordanians, the Egyptians or the Saudis.' The Home Office refused to comment on Abu Qatada's claim.
Last week, the cleric, who is wanted in Jordan for an alleged role in a series of bombings, said he 'respected' bin Laden. 'He is a Muslim and he seeks to liberate his land from the enemies of the Muslim nation.' But the cleric told The Observer this weekend: 'I was never part of al-Qaeda or any other group. This is all part of a campaign of lies being spread by the media and the security services.'
Intelligence sources in Pakistan claim, however, to have proof that Abu Qatada is consulted by al-Qaeda. They allege that a pamphlet he wrote on 'holy war' was commissioned by them to help resolve a dispute with another extreme terror group, Takfir-wal-Hirja. The cleric denies this.
Fears about radical Islamic clerics living in Britain were further raised by an Observer investigation into a suspected cell based in Leicester. It has emerged that a second Islamic cleric, Libyan Abu Abdullah, had close ties with French-Algerians now under arrest for plotting to blow up the US embassy in Paris.
Abu Abdullah, a preacher at the Mosque of Piety in north-east Leicester, was a spiritual mentor to Djamal Beghal, suspected ringleader of terrorist cells across Europe. Beghal's chief lieutenant, Kamel Daoudi, was arrested in Leicester days after 11 September. Daoudi claims he met Abu Abdullah in Leicester in March.