Terror Watch: Fate of a British Terror Suspect

A British appeals court Wednesday blocked the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown from deporting to Jordan a firebrand Islamic cleric who has long been suspected of close ties to Al Qaeda. The court's rationale: there were reasonable grounds to believe the Jordanians would jail him for life based on evidence obtained through the torture of other detainees.

The court ruling is the latest example of how the alleged use of torture is complicating efforts by the United States and its allies to prosecute high-profile terror suspects and their associates. In this case, the suspect at issue, Abu Qatada, is a notorious radical imam who, British authorities charge, has inflamed British Muslims with his anti-Western sermons. All the while, he has maintained "long-established connections with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda," according to a British government dossier entered into evidence in his court case. Abu Qatada has always denied being an Al Qaeda operative or leader, although in an interview broadcast after 9/11 he said that even though he has never met Osama bin Laden he would have been "proud" to have done so.

British authorities sought to deport Abu Qatada to his native country, Jordan, where he has twice been convicted in absentia for conspiracy to commit terrorist activities and was sentenced to life in prison. But the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for England and Wales stopped the move on the grounds that it would violate Abu Qatada's human rights. The court cited Jordan's long history of using torture against terror suspects, and pointed to a 2006 Amnesty International report detailing "persistent complaints of torture" against suspects in "incommunicado detention" by Jordanian security forces. Human Rights Watch, a group that campaigns against the use of torture, released a report this week that described how detainees held by Jordan's intelligence service, known as the GID, were allegedly subjected to brutal beatings and threats of rape. The report claimed that from 2001 to at least 2004, the GID served as a "proxy jailer" for the Central Intelligence Agency. The organization claimed that "more than just warehousing these men, the GID interrogated them using methods that were even more brutal than those in which the CIA has been implicated to date." In one such instance, a Jordanian detainee, in a note smuggled out of a GID detention facility in 2003, claimed that he had been "threatened ... with electricity ... and with snakes and dogs ... [They said] we'll make you see death."

A spokesman for the Jordanian Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment. In the past, the Jordanian government has repeatedly denied that it engages in torture.

The British government said it plans to appeal the court's ruling. A government spokesman said that Abu Qatada, who has been detained without trial since 2005, "will remain behind bars."

The issue is especially sensitive for the CIA. After the 9/11 attacks, the agency flew a number of terror suspects picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere to prisons in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. The fate of many of these suspects, who were transported under what is known as the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program, remains unknown. Bush administration officials have repeatedly insisted that Jordan and other countries reassured them that suspects would not be tortured. Asked for comment, a CIA spokesman said: "Renditions are a lawful, valuable tool and they have been used for years to take terrorists off the streets. The United States does not transport individuals for the purpose of torture, and has no interest in any process that would produce bad intelligence. The agency does not, as a rule, comment publicly on allegations of specific rendition activities."

Meanwhile, British security agencies have struggled with the country's courts over how to deal with Islamic militants and Al Qaeda sympathizers who have taken up residence there. The U.S. Treasury Department named Abu Qatada as an alleged terrorist financier. His U.S. assets were frozen immediately following the 9/11 attacks, an indication at the time that American authorities believed he was a guru to pro-bin Laden extremists in Europe. Officials in the U.S. and the U.K. subsequently alleged that Qatada had served as a spiritual guide to Zacarias Moussaoui, the convicted associate of the 9/11 hijacking team, and Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner in late 2001 using a bomb planted in his shoe.

In the months after 9/11, the British government, then led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, passed tough new antiterrorism laws designed to empower authorities to take alleged troublemakers like Abu Qatada off the streets, even if there was insufficient evidence to charge and convict them for any specific crime. When authorities initially went to arrest Abu Qatada under the new laws in late 2001, however, he disappeared. He was found nearly a year later hiding out at an apartment not far from the central London headquarters of both M.I.5, Britain's counterintelligence service, and M.I.6, the legendary U.K. foreign spy agency.

Abu Qatada was arrested and offered the choice of either returning voluntarily to Jordan or remaining in detention in the U.K. without trial. He chose to stay in Britain. During his imprisonment, some British and American officials believed he still managed to pass messages to extremists that may have triggered terrorist plots, though no charges were ever brought. After the U.K. courts invalidated one version of the post-9/11 detention law, Abu Qatada was temporarily released from prison, only to be locked up again after a new version of the law was passed. With the latest court decision blocking moves to forcibly deport him to Jordan, Abu Qatada remains in legal limbo.

A summary of British intelligence reporting on Abu Qatada is included in the now-invalidated government ruling that authorized the cleric's deportation to Jordan. Among other things, the dossier alleges that Abu Qatada had "long established connections with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda," and that he declared in a sermon three days after 9/11 that the attacks were part of a wider battle between Islam and Christianity and were a response to America's unjust policies. The dossier says that since 1995, Abu Qatada had encouraged terrorism outside the U.K. by groups such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), North Africa's GSPC and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (all of which eventually became associated to some degree with Al Qaeda). The dossier says numerous videos featuring Abu Qatada were found in the Hamburg, Germany, apartment of lead 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta; the papers also claim that Abu Qatada was friendly with Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Though Abu Qatada "is not formally a member of Al Qaeda," the report says, quoting M.I.5, "their interests overlap to a high degree."

The British government dossier includes an intriguing acknowledgement that in 1996-97, Abu Qatada was interviewed on three occasions by M.I.5 officers. The dossier says that Abu Qatada agreed to use his influence to "minimize the risk of a violent response" in the event that authorities went ahead with the deportation and extradition of a U.K.-based leader of the GIA. After Abu Qatada went underground when authorities came to get him in late 2001, some media reports alleged that he was a British intelligence informant and that M.I.5 or M.I.6 had somehow stashed him away. British officials repeatedly denied these charges, and the official U.K. government dossier says that even though Abu Qatada did talk to M.I.5 some 10 years ago, he never provided any information "enabling attacks to be prevented, warned his congregation to be wary of M.I.5's approaches, and provided them with physical descriptions and names of M.I.5 officers approaching Muslims."