Six years after his arrest for allgedly planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the millenium, Abu Doha remains in a British jail charged only with immigration violations.
LONDON – The U.S. says he is an al-Qaida-linked terrorist who worked with Osama bin Laden and plotted to bomb the Los Angeles airport at the turn of the millennium. Yet Abu Doha languishes in a British jail for nothing more serious than immigration violations.
An American attempt to extradite him collapsed, and Britain lacks evidence to charge him with terrorist crimes, leaving Abu Doha in a six-year legal limbo that worries civil libertarians.
Rights activists oppose Britain’s effort to deport Abu Doha to his native Algeria, fearing he might suffer mistreatment from a government that has fought a long conflict with Islamic radicals. They say he should be freed since he hasn’t been brought to trial.
“I think if all that had been said about him was true, there would have been efforts to sustain the (extradition) request from the United States,” said Paul Wilkinson of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University.
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The British government answers that Abu Doha is a threat to national security, so it wants to send him to Algeria. He is appealing, and the case is due to be heard early next year.
In Washington, an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said the Justice Department opposed the idea of Abu Doha ever being loose.
Abu Doha, 40, also known as Dr. Haidar, Amar Makhlulif and “The Doctor,” has been described by U.S. prosecutors as a key al-Qaida figure who oversaw a plot to blow up Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve 1999.
The plan was foiled when another Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, was caught trying to enter Washington state from Canada in a car loaded with explosives. Ressam identified Abu Doha as the plot’s ringleader.
Abu Doha was arrested at Heathrow Airport in February 2001 while trying to travel to Saudi Arabia on a false passport and has been held in a high-security prison ever since.
In August 2001, he was indicted in New York as the mastermind of the millennium bomb plot. According to the indictment, he sent some terrorists to training camps in Afghanistan and others to Canada to prepare for the failed attack.
Police and prosecutors said Abu Doha, who moved to London in the 1990s, was a major player at the city’s Finsbury Park Mosque, which was a key center for recruiting and training Islamic extremists. They said he led a mostly Algerian terrorist network with cells in Europe and North America.
U.S. prosecutors also alleged that in late 1998, Abu Doha met with bin Laden in Afghanistan “to discuss cooperation and coordination between al-Qaida and a group of Algerian terrorists whose activities Abu Doha coordinated and oversaw.”
Then in August 2005, the U.S. dropped its extradition request. Ressam, now serving a 22-year sentence for his involvement in the millennium plot, had stopped cooperating with prosecutors in 2003. Without his testimony, the U.S. said it had to drop its cases against Abu Doha and another alleged co-conspirator, Samir Ait Mohamed.
“Ressam’s testimony would have been an essential part of the government’s evidence at trial against Abu Doha,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric B. Bruce wrote in an Aug. 21, 2005, notice asking the U.S. District Court in Manhattan to dismiss the charges.
Britain’s Home Office now is seeking to send Abu Doha to Algeria over his objections.
Civil liberties groups argue against deportation, citing the possibility he might be suffer abuse. Amnesty International says the Algerian security service uses torture on terrorist suspects.
As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Britain is not allowed to deport people to countries where they may face torture or other abuse. In July, Britain signed an agreement with Algeria that nationals returned there will not be mistreated, but Amnesty calls that “a green light to torture.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was almost certain Abu Doha would be imprisoned if he returned to Algeria.
Rabah Toubal, spokesman at the Algerian Embassy in London, said Abu Doha had been involved in “many acts of terrorism” in his homeland, but declined to specify what would happen if he returned.
“If he comes back he has to respond to some questions about what he did,” Toubal said.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington contributed to this report.