On Monday, a federal jury in New York City found Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri guilty of almost a dozen terrorism-related charges.
One of those charges: the imam had encouraged followers to set up a terrorist training camp on American soil. And now a story is emerging from a local police officer about an encounter he had with some of those involved that he says the FBI told him could have ended very badly.
All told, the British-Egyptian al-Masri was found guilty on 11 counts, including charges that he helped kidnappers during a 1998 hostage situation in Yemen and that he directed young men to set up an al-Qaeda-like training camp in Oregon in the late 1990s.
“The defendant stands convicted, not for what he said, but for what he did,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, calling al-Masri “not just a preacher of faith, but a trainer of terrorists.”
Al-Masri’s conviction in the U.S. comes after he serve a seven-year prison sentence in the U.K. for inciting murder and promoting racial hatred.
Residents of Bly, Oregon, the remote town once targeted by al-Masri’s followers, shared some of their stories with SkyNews.
Local police officer Sgt. Maurie Smith recalled once pulling over a car for a routine traffic stop and coming face-to-face with possible terrorists.
“I noticed that they were wearing army fatigues, long trench coat jackets, they had head gear on, long beards, and (were) of Arabic descent,” Smith said.
Smith said the group was “overly polite” and aroused suspicion, but without backup and with a limited legal ability to search and seize, he decided not to search the vehicle.
That decision could have saved his life.
The FBI agents who swarmed the area within hours of Smith filing a report told him a search could have proved fatal.
“I was upset about not searching the vehicle,” Smith recalled, “and they said ‘Well, they’re highly trained individuals, we’ve been tracking them for a while, they are linked to some terrorist organizations’, and that basically if you’d hit the right button at that very moment they would have shot you dead on the spot, without feeling any remorse about it.”
Al-Masri’s men selected the area around Bly because it was sparsely populated and arid — “just like Afghanistan,” one man wrote to al-Masri — but the camp foundered and was soon abandoned.
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