LONDON – Is the release from prison this week of a radical cleric once described as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe part of a deal that Britain made with Gaza-based terrorists for the freedom last summer of kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston?
Johnston was released last July after being held captive by a Palestinian group for nearly four months – the longest detention of any foreign correspondent kidnapped in Gaza.
At the time of his release, Palestinian sources involved in the negotiations to free Johnston claimed to WND that Britain told the kidnappers through mediators it would free from jail Abu Qatada, who has been accused of serving as al-Qaida’s spiritual adviser in Europe.
The Palestinian sources involved in the Johnston negotiations claimed last year the British government pledged through a third-party mediator to release Abu Qatada only after a period of at least six months so the release wouldn’t appear connected to Johnston’s freedom.
Qatada had been detained in Britain as a terror suspect but was not tried or sentenced.
He is accused among other things of planning terror attacks in Jordan and 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.
Shocking many in the security establishment, Britain on Tuesday released Qatada after blocking his deportation to Jordan, where he is wanted on terror charges.
A judge ruled there were no grounds to keep him in jail and remanded him to house arrest, where he is under heavy restrictions that will reportedly cost British taxpayers an estimated $980,000 per year.
Less than 24 hours after leaving jail, Qatada yesterday celebrated his freedom with the release of a book in which he urges Muslims to commit terrorist attacks in the West, London’s Daily Mail reported.
Alan Johnston after his release (BBC)
Qatada published a 71-page screed on the Internet in which he argues fighting jihad is obligatory for all Muslims and urges them to ‘terrorize’ non-believers.
The Daily Mail reported U.K. counter-terrorism officials believe Qatada, 47, remains a grave threat to national security.
During the Johnston kidnapping ordeal, the BBC correspondent’s abductors – 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 last summer, Abu Qatada himself offered to help mediate the prisoner exchange.
Hamas sources and Israeli diplomatic sources familiar with the Johnston release talks confirmed to WND last summer there were third-party discussions between Gaza’s Hamas rulers, 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. They 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 during any rescue attempt.
Abbas officials believe deal was made
The Palestinian sources involved in the negotiations claimed that in the days before Johnston’s release, as Hamas encircled the Army of Islam compound in which the reporter was being held and threatened a rescue operation in which Hamas said Johnston’s death was very possible, the British government expressed its willingness to free Qatada.
The sources involved in the negotiations claimed last July, hours before Johnston’s release, the British government agreed to release Qatada within a period of at least 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.
Officials from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office said they believe a deal was made for the release of Johnston. They also accused Hamas of paying off the Army of Islam.
A source in the Dugmash clan, speaking to WND yesterday, said he was “sure” Qatada’s release was payment pledged by London to free Johnston.
In recent days, several senior Dugmash figures have been killed in Gaza in assassinations widely attributed to Israel.
A number of senior Israeli defense officials told the Jerusalem Post last year the fact that the Army of Islam captors released the BBC journalist without a fight indicates the terrorist group received something in return.
Mohamed Atta listened to his sermons
Abu Qatada entered the U.K. 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 cooperate to help prevent Islamist terrorism in the U.K. 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. He is also accused of planning 1998 terror attacks in Jordan.
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 U.K. figure” in al-Qaida-related terror.
The British government several times promised to deport Qatada to face his life sentence in Jordan.
BBC reporter Johnston was abducted from a street in the Gaza Strip March 12, 2007.
WND first reported in April 2007 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.
To interview Aaron Klein, contact M. Sliwa Public Relations by e-mail, or call 973-272-2861 or 212-202-4453.