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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

October 26, 2002

Muslim cleric held under anti-terror law

This guy a Palestinian, wanted by Jordan too, operating out of Egypt at one time

Anti-terrorist police in London have arrested a Muslim cleric accused by France and Spain of being an influential figure in the al-Qaeda terrorist network in Europe.

Abu Qatada was arrested at 7.30pm on Wednesday and is being held at Belmarsh prison in south London. He is only the 12th person to be held under the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act introduced in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US, after which Mr Qatada and his family disappeared from their west Lon don home.

Spanish and French investigators believe Mr Qatada, a Palestinian who preached at the Baker Street prayer group in London, has been an important figure in the al-Qaeda network. Baltasar Garzon, Spain's chief investigative magistrate, has accused Mr Qatada of directing the activities of Islamic extremists in Europe. According to US court records he is also accused of being a member of al-Qaeda's fatwa committee, which issues religious rulings.

Terrorism experts say he is a member of an Egyptian Islamist group, Takfir wal-Hijra, headed by Ayman al-Zawhari, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda. He is wanted in Jordan for his alleged role in a series of bombings in the capital Amman in 1998.

Following his disappearance last December, the British security service MI5 was accused in the US media and by European terrorism investigators of hiding Mr Qatada and using him as an informer. MI5 denied the accusation.

Security sources have said that a decision was taken to allow Mr Qatada a degree of liberty while he was on the run, in the hope that under surveillance he would give terrorism investigators clues. It is not known how much has been learned since he disappeared last December, though security sources have said that the surveillance strategy was co-ordinated with Spanish and French security services.

Mr Qatada has not been charged, but the legislation under which he is being held allows for the indefinite detention of non-British citizens if they are considered a danger to national security.

The Court of Appeal is to decide this morning whether the law is discriminatory according to the European convention on human rights, as it applies only to non-British citizens. It is not known whether Mr Qatada's arrest was timed to take place before the appeal court judgment.