Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, 56, better known in Britain as Abu Hamza al-Masri, has pleaded not guilty to 11 kidnapping and terror counts that pre-date the 9/11 attacks.
Blind in one eye and with both hands blown off in an explosion in Afghanistan, he faces life in a maximum security US prison if convicted by jury at the New York court.
Taking the stand for the first time in his trial, wearing tracksuit bottoms, a blue T-shirt and orange socks, the Egyptian-born former civil engineer spoke softly.
At one stage he elicited laughter from jury members by doling out marital advice, saying it would be “silly” for a man to tell his wife he didn’t love her.
“This is a silly kind of truth,” he said, explaining the man could easily change his mind multiple times.
“Maybe he loves her later” or “maybe she is the best person for him,” he said in an almost scholarly voice.
He also said his engineering studies included the World Trade Center, destroyed in the 9/11 attacks he has praised, and the effect of “explosions” and demolition — which he said became “useful” later in life.
He is charged over the 1998 kidnapping in Yemen of 16 Westerners, conspiracy to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon in 1999, of providing material support to Al-Qaeda, of assisting the Taliban and of sending recruits for terror training in Afghanistan.
The three-times married father of nine said he moved to England in 1979 aged 21 because he “looked forward to a Western life, American-style.”
He testified that he wanted to “pursue my dreams as we see in the films” after growing up in Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which he described as “very close to Italy” and used to foreigners.
In London, he took odd jobs, working as a hotel receptionist, a bouncer in the Soho party district and said he was “co-manager of a strip club.”
He wanted to “make money and enjoy myself” and only later saw his jobs as on the “wrong side of morality.”
Once he saved up enough money, he said he got a degree in civil engineering.
As an engineer he worked as a contractor at Britain’s prestigious military academy Sandhurst, which he quickly pointed out was where Prince Harry had trained.
Earlier in the day, his defence team told the judge, not in the presence of the jury, that during the time covered by the charges he had been in close contact with British security services, offering information and guidance in an effort to “keep the streets of London safe”, his defence contended.
His lawyers said they intended to make use of 50 pages of documents provided by Scotland Yard that would back up the claim that he had been of vital assistance in London to keep his followers calm during periods of particular tension in the late 1990s and into 2000.
The judge ruled she would not allow the defence to use the Scotland Yard documents. But Abu Hamza’s team was expected to appeal today.
The circumstances of repeated conversations with MI5 and Scotland Yard would be the “theme of our defence,” Joshua Dratel, for Abu Hamza, told the judge. “He was an intermediary… with respect to cooling heads in the community, with respect to maintaining order in the community.”
He blamed his initial interest in Islam in 1982 on his English wife, who was “pushing too hard” to convert as a means for the couple to spend more time together.
They bought an English edition of the Koran and stopped smoking. During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, he took time off from the clubs and found that he “enjoyed” the break, he said.
Despite saying lies were justified in Islam in certain cases, he denied he would lie on the stand.
“I’m no stranger to prison. If my freedom comes at the expense of my dignity, I don’t want it,” he said.
He was indicted in the US in 2004 and was arrested in Britain, where he served eight years in prison before losing his fight against extradition in 2012.