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Abu Qatada has described himself as “a simple teacher of Islam” with “a big mouth and a big belly.” A Spanish judge called him Osama bin Laden’s “right-hand man in Europe.” To the British government, he is now simply a huge embarrassment.
Britain’s decade-long attempt to deport Mr. Qatada to Jordan, where he has been convicted in absentia on terrorism charges, hit the skids again this week with the latest spat between Britain and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR ruled in January that while deporting Mr. Qatada would not contravene Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of torture), it would contravene Article 6 (right to a fair trial). This, despite the highest court in Britain having already agreed to let Mr. Qatada be deported. The ECHR reasoned that the evidence the Jordanians planned to use against Mr. Qatada could have been gained under duress.
British Home Secretary Theresa May then travelled to Jordan in a (successful) bid to obtain further assurances that this would not be the case. This week, Mr. Qatada’s lawyers countered by appealing the ECHR’s determination that he would not be tortured if deported. Now, the ECHR and the British government have entered a farcical disagreement over whether Mr. Qatada had missed the three-month deadline to appeal. Believing the deadline had passed on Monday, Ms. May took to the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon to announce that the deportation proceedings were back on track. Hours later, Mr. Qatada’s lawyers filed their appeal with European court, who maintain that Ms. May was a day off in her calculations, and that Mr. Qatada’s appeal is valid.
The entire Qatada saga has always had a ludicrous air, yet Mr. Qatada himself is a serious man. In the 1980s he fought in Afghanistan and intelligence reports suggest he eventually became a disciple of the influential jihadist ideologue Abdullah Azzam. In 1993, Mr. Qatada came to the U.K. on a forged passport, gained asylum status and spent the next decade encouraging terrorist attacks, notably in Jordan, Algeria and Chechnya, while helping to send jihadist fighters to training camps abroad. His name appears regularly in Guantanamo Bay detainees’ documentation and remains on a U.N. list of individuals associated with al Qaeda. Jamal al-Fadl, an al Qaeda defector, has even named Mr. Qatada as an early member of al Qaeda’s fatwa committee. Mr. Qatada has denied this and also said he’s never even met bin Laden, let alone served as his “right-hand man.”
Mr. Qatada’s real power is in his rhetoric. He helped popularize the view among young Muslims that slaughter in the name of Islam would hasten one’s arrival in paradise. From his London base, he acted as a religious instructor to the likes of Zacarias Moussaoui (convicted for offenses relating to 9/11), Djamel Beghal (jailed for plotting to bomb the US embassy in Paris) and shoe bomber Richard Reid. Mr. Qatada’s sermons were also discovered in Mohamed Atta’s flat, and terrorist cells around the world have cited him as a spiritual leader. Despite his decade-long detention in the U.K., al Qaeda franchises in Pakistan, Somalia and Iraq have all warned the British government in recent days against pursuing Mr. Qatada’s deportation to Jordan. He is clearly still relevant.
There is frustration that he has not been tried in the U.K. for his contributions to global terror, yet there are several reasons why he cannot be. First, some of what would now be regarded as a crime was not when Mr. Qatada was in his pomp. It took the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 to remedy this. Furthermore, before 9/11 there was little desire to prosecute Islamic radicals even when it was legally possible. Adherents to the jihadist cause were often seen as simply political dissidents—indeed, Mr. Qatada was granted asylum in Britain because of his opposition to the Jordanian government. Finally, past precedent of convicted radical clerics suggests that even if Mr. Qatada were convicted of an offense, such as soliciting to murder, in Britain he would have likely been sentenced to seven years. Only half of that time would be served in prison, and the rest on community license. As he has already spent far longer than that awaiting deportation, even a successful conviction would see him released immediately and the British government would be back to square one.
That is why deportation has always been the best option for the government. The ongoing mess would be more damaging to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government if Labour hadn’t had even greater trouble deporting national-security threats when they were in power. Both under Labour and now under the Coalition, the result has been the same: an appearance of impotence, and letting ECHR rulings trump both British national-security concerns and British courts. Prime Minister David Cameron is not radical enough to change this. In 2008, then-opposition Leader Cameron said it was “disgraceful” and “crazy” that the likes of Mr. Qatada could not be deported, and that if the Conservatives gained power, he “would do what is necessary” to rectify this. Clearly, he has not.
The Westminster political class has largely bought into the notion that adhering to the European Convention on Human Rights makes us better than the terrorists. They must also then accept the consequences of that notion: Continuing to house a man who persuaded citizens of a country he should never have been allowed into to fight and die abroad; an erosion of sovereignty; and an exasperated and increasingly disenfranchised electorate. Mr. Qatada’s sermons often spoke of the need to undermine confidence in nation states. In more ways than one, he appears to be succeeding.