JAFFA, Israel – In exchange for the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, Britain told the Hamas terror group through mediators it would free from jail an extremist sheik accused of serving as al-Qaida’s spiritual adviser in Europe, Palestinian sources involved in the negotiations claimed to WND.
The sheik, Abu Qatada, is accused among other things of advising 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Qatada’s sermons were found among the possessions of 9/11 operational leader Mohamed Atta.
The Palestinian sources involved in the Johnston negotiations claimed the British government pledged through a third-party mediator to release Abu Qatada after six months so the release wouldn’t appear connected to Johnston’s freedom.
Qatada has been detained in Britain as a terror suspect but was not tried or sentenced.
Johnston’s kidnappers, the Gaza-based Army of Islam, demanded in videos and faxes sent to news agencies the freedom of Abu Qatada in exchange for Johnston’s release. Speaking from jail, Abu Qatada himself offered to help mediate the prisoner exchange.
Hamas sources and Israeli diplomatic sources familiar with the talks confirmed to WND there were third-party discussions the past three weeks between Hamas, a mediator and the British government for the release of Johnston. A second track of negotiations were opened between Hamas and the Army of Islam kidnappers, the sources said. Also, the BBC was in direct contact with Hamas, said the sources.
Palestinian sources involved in the Johnston negotiations said Hamas passed to the British government the Army of Islam’s demand for the freedom of Abu Qatada and also warned if Hamas stormed the Gaza compound in which Johnston was known to have been held, the BBC reporter likely would have been killed in the rescue attempt.
The Palestinian sources involved in the negotiations claimed in recent days as Hamas encircled the Army of Islam compound and threatened a rescue operation in which Hamas said Johnston’s death was very possible, the British government expressed its willingness to free Qatada.
Alan Johnston after his release (BBC)
The sources involved in the negotiations claimed yesterday, hours before Johnston’s release, the British government agreed to release Qatada within a period of six months. The sources said that pledge was immediately passed to the Army of Islam in a meeting between its leader, Mumtaz Dugmash, and Hamas “military wing” commander Ahmad Jabari.
The sources admitted the Army of Islam had no way of ensuring the British government follow through with its purported commitment to release Qatada, but they said Dugmash threatened to kidnap more British nationals in Gaza if Qatada is not freed.
Abu Oubaida, a spokesman for Hamas, would not confirm any deal was reached.
The British embassy in Tel Aviv did not return calls for comment on the issue before press time.
Officials from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office said today they believe a deal was made for the release of Johnston. They also accused Hamas of paying off the Army of Islam.
A number of senior Israeli defense officials told the Jerusalem Post today they believed Hamas paid a substantial ransom – possibly millions of dollars – to Johnston’s captors in return for his release. The officials told the Post the fact that the Army of Islam captors released the BBC journalist without a fight indicates the terrorist group received something in return.
Abu Qatada entered the UK in 1993 with a forged United Arab Emirates passport after fleeing Jordan, where he faced accusations of inciting terrorist acts. He reportedly delivered sermons calling for the downfall of the U.S. and Britain.
In the mid-1990s, Qatada was said to have held meetings with an MI5 officer at which he suggested his willingness to co-operate to help prevent Islamist terrorism in the UK. The meetings were later outlined in an official governmental commission regarding Qatada.
Qatada was accused by German authorities of plotting an attack on a central market, and he was sentenced in absentia in 2000 to life imprisonment in Jordan for his alleged involvement in a plot to bomb tourists there attending millennium celebrations.
Qatada is wanted on terrorism charges in Algeria, the U.S., Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Jordan.
Nineteen videotapes featuring Qatada’s sermons were found among the possessions of 9/11 ringleader Atta. A Paris-based terror cell accused of plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy in France in 2001 reportedly was headed by a follower of Qatada.
A British immigration appeals commission report stated it concluded Qatada was a “key UK figure” in al-Qaida related terror.
The British government several times promised to deport Qatada to face his life sentence in Jordan.
It was unclear whether any purported deal reached for the release of Qatada would see the al-Qaida suspect deported from the UK.
BBC reporter Johnston was abducted from a street in the Gaza Strip March 12, marking the longest detention of any foreign correspondent held captive in Gaza.
WND first reported in April senior Palestinian security officials believed Johnston was being held by the Dugmash clan, a powerful Gaza-based Palestinian family affiliated with local terrorist organizations and ideologically aligned with global jihad groups. The Dugmash’s lead the Army of Islam, which later took credit for the kidnapping.
Some members of the Dugmash clan previously were with the “Saladin resistance department” of the Popular Resistance Committees, a coalition of terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The Committees organization is accused of orchestrating attacks with groups affiliated with al-Qaida and has carried out anti-American attacks. Israel says the Committees group was responsible for the bombing of a U.S. convoy in Gaza in 2003 in which three American government contractors were killed.
A significant number of Dugmash clan members left the Committees last year, complaining the group was not “Muslim enough.” They formed the Palestine Army of Islam, which bills itself as the closest Palestinian organization ideologically to al-Qaida. The Army of Islam is one of three terrorist groups that claimed responsibility in June for the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Army of Islam chief Dugmash last month was crowned the “prince of al-Qaida in Gaza” in a statement released by al-Qaida leaders in Iraq.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials said the Dugmash clan was strongly suspected of kidnapping two Fox News reporters in Gaza in August who were held for two weeks but later released.
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