By Simon Freeman, Times Online
A British al-Qaeda suspect wanted in America for allegedly running a terror training camp today said that he was "baffled" by the claim as he opposed a White House demand for his extradition.
Haroon Rashid Aswat, 30, from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, was arrested when he arrived back in Britain yesterday after being deported from Zambia. He was remanded in custody until August 11 following a hearing before Bow Street Magistrates, sitting at a secure complex within Belmarsh Prison.
Mr Aswat now faces being extradited to the US after a warrant was issued accusing him of being involved in conspiring to train people in Oregon to "fight jihad" in Afghanistan.
Dressed in a long, black robe, he sat with his arms folded throughout the hearing. He denied any involvement in terrorism and, asked whether he would consent to being extradited to the United States, he replied: "At the moment, no."
Hugo Keith, a lawyer for the US Government, said that Mr Aswat had been involved in setting up a training camp in Oregon which had aimed to provide training for American and British men who would then be sent to fight jihad in Afghanistan. The intention was for them to learn how to use weapons, hand-to-hand combat and martial arts.
Mr Keith said that the camp was established by another man, but Mr Aswat and an accomplice arrived later to raise money and establish the camp further. He is said to have arrived in New York from Britain on November 26, 1999, and to have brought with him CD-Roms showing how to make bombs and poisons and how to conduct military operations.
Mr Keith said that Mr Aswat had claimed to have been in a camp in Afghanistan and to have met Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda. He remained at the camp in Bly, Oregon, for a month before going back to Seattle and his whereabouts after that were unknown, Mr Keith said.
Mr Keith said: "When arrested he had the majority of his belongings with him which signalled a nomadic lifestyle."
The accusations against Mr Aswat in the United States means he faces up to 15 years in jail there, but Mr Keith said the charges could change and he could face a longer term of imprisonment.
Hassein Zahir, representing Mr Aswat, said that he had no connections to terrorism. He said: "He wishes to stress he has nothing to hide. He wishes to stress he is not seeking to avoid answering these allegations. He denies these allegations.
"He believes he has no secrets whatsoever and he has spoken openly. He is also baffled that these allegations come about nearly five years later and he wishes to make clear he has never led a clandestine life."
Mr Aswat, who grew up in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, was arrested under Zambian immigration laws last month. The US Government had no way of quickly extraditing him from Zambia and, following talks with Downing Street, he was instead deported to Britain. He arrived at RAF Northolt last night and was driven to Paddington Green High Security Police Station in London.
The extradition warrant was issued by Bow Street Magistrates’ Court on behalf of the US authorities.
Mr Aswat's family has raised concerns that if he is deported he will be sent to Guantanamo Bay, the detention camp in Cuba, without trial.
He is understood to have been interrogated by US and British agents while in Zambia.
Zambian authorities are reported to have questioned Mr Aswat over 20 phone calls reportedly made on his South African mobile phone with some of the July 7 London bombers. Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30, the key figure in the bomb team, also came from Dewsbury, but sources in Scotland Yard have played down Mr Aswat’s significance to the London bombings inquiry.
The US warrant alleges that between October 1, 1999, and April 30, 2000, Mr Aswat "conspired with others to control and manage an association of persons in Bly, Oregon, who would be organised and trained, or organised and equipped, for the purpose of enabling them to be employed for the use or display of physical force in promoting a political object, namely to make hijrah to, and to fight jihad in, Afghanistan".
Another charge said that he conspired with others so that any training would "arouse reasonable apprehension" that people were being prepared to "fight jihad" in Afghanistan.
It is understood that the Government did not want a repeat of the situation that arose in 2002 when Martin Mubanga, a British Muslim, was arrested in Zambia and taken by the US military to Guantanamo Bay.
Mr Aswat’s parents, who came to Britain from India, live in Batley, West Yorkshire, and say they have not seen their son for ten years. He is believed to have left home and gone to the Finsbury Park Mosque, North London, where he became a follower of the militant form of Islam preached there.