My Prayers Are with the Taliban

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Fiery, eloquent, charming Abu Hamza Al-Masri, 43, is the imam of the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park, the most controversial in Europe. Shoe bomber Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui (the so-called 20th hijacker), Djamel Beghal and other radicals have been in his congregation. Born in Egypt, Abu Hamza studied engineering there and in Britain. After working as a civil engineer in the U.K., he went to Afghanistan in 1993. There he lost both hands and an eye in an explosion. Since 1996, he has been imam of the Finsbury Park mosque. He spoke to TIME about himself, his teachings and his ties to radicals. Excerpts: TIME: Your mosque has been called one of the most radical and dangerous in Europe. Abu Hamza: (Laughs) Many Muslim preachers these days think they have to teach Islam the way the West wants them to, not the way God wants. They believe the more moderate their Islam, the more acceptable they will be in Western eyes. All I do is to explain Islam the way it is, rather than dish out an apologetic version to avoid contradicting the interests of the West. That's why my mosque is described as radical and we are called terrorists. Anyone who disagrees with the West these days is a terrorist. I am not interested in provoking the West, but I believe Islam is a just, fair religion that will always campaign against tyrants and evildoers. TIME: Are you a member of al-Qaeda or an associate of Osama bin Laden? Have you had links with the Taliban? Abu Hamza: I am not a member of al-Qaeda or a puppet of Osama bin Laden, but that doesn't mean I don't share some of his views. We have a long association with the Taliban government. We gave them some advice on rebuilding Afghanistan. Much of it was ignored. My sympathies and prayers are with the Taliban, but that's not a crime. TIME: Many radicals have frequented your mosque Beghal, Moussaoui, Reid, Trabelsi, the Courtailler brothers. Do you know any of them? Abu Hamza: As you can see, I have a very large mosque. On Fridays, I have over 1,500 people, sometimes more. I preach openly. My sermons are all taped. They are put on the website immediately. I have never hidden anything from anyone. I hold regular debates with Muslims and non-Muslims, and people can come and question me. I have heard all the names you have mentioned. It is possible that I have met them, but I don't remember. Look, all these people are only alleged to have been terrorists. Will they ever get a fair trial when they have been pronounced guilty by the media and the public before they have even been charged? In the eyes of the West, a Muslim is always guilty before he is charged and a Westerner is innocent until proven guilty. You call this justice? TIME: But you do attract young, radical Muslims in your mosque because of what you preach, right? Abu Hamza: Most of my congregation are refugees from the Muslim countries with tyrannical regimes. Yes, most of them are young, but we have old people too. TIME: People say your mosque receives money from unknown foreign sources to train jihadis. How is your mosque funded? Abu Hamza: It's a lie. I have been accused of many things, but this is the first I am hearing that we are also accused of receiving money to train terrorists. Our mosque is very poor. We haven't paid our water bill for five years. Our electricity has been cut off three times in the past four years. We are struggling to keep going on donations. I don't get paid for my preaching. I openly talk against tyrants in the Muslim world, so it is unlikely any of the Muslim governments will fund my mosque. We don't receive money from any rich Saudi businessman. TIME: Is it true that Algerian and Egyptian secret services have infiltrated your mosque? Abu Hamza: (Laughs) Oh, all of them, not just the Algerians and Egyptians. The Saudis have sent people. Iraqi, Yemeni, Syrian, Jordanian secret services as well. They all want to shut me up because I criticize their tyrannical regimes. The Algerian secret service has gone to the media and talked about my mosque. We have caught some of them secretly filming inside the mosque, even in the toilets. TIME: Some radicals were reportedly trained in the mosque's basement to assemble and operate AK-47s. Abu Hamza: AK-47s? Oh, I think the reporter got that wrong. We were actually assembling F-16s in the basement. (Laughs)