To be honest, I didn’t really think about it, just plonking myself down in the chair facing the door.
Reda Hassaine hesitated, unsure of quite what to do. Then he face broke into a broad grin and and sat down.
“For 10 years I have always sat in that chair,” he said pointing at mine. “I always faced the door so I could see who was coming in.
“Now it doesn’t matter.”
A couple of hours earlier we were sat in Court 15A of the US District Courthouse in downtown Manhattan – no more than a 10-minute walk from where the Twin Towers once stood – listening to Judge Katherine Forrest send down Abu Hamza for life.
It was the first time I had seen the radical preacher in the flesh. He cut a charismatic yet forlorn figure: a powerful, handsome man whose wild grey beard had been tamed, but who seemed resigned to dying in an American prison.
His reputation and headlines were a long time ago, generated in a country far, far away. While the British media turned up early to bag the best seats, our American colleagues seemed underwhelmed. The court was busy, but not mobbed. The man from the New York Times was too late to claim a spot in the jury box (opened up to the press for once) and was clearly miffed at coming out second best.
New York life carried on outside. No-one really seemed to know he was.
That is apart from the British journalists and my new friend Reda, an Algerian who fled his home country’s stifling intelligence services for London and who carefully embedded himself in the crazy world hidden inside the Finsbury Park Mosque, which Abu Hamza ran as a state within a state. From there he did his best to alert the British police of the deadly venom being steadily
Yet no-one seemed to do anything about it. Reda spells it out in his book Abu Hamza Guilty: The Brits seemed happy to keep Abu Hamza and his acolytes where they could see him, soaking up tit bits of intelligence. Or – as Reda rather suggests – the gentlemen bunglers of the British security establishment simply never appreciated the danger he represented.
Reda eventually also worked with French and Algerian intelligence services, who were quicker to latch on to Abu Hamza’s threat. And he provided scoop after scoop to British newspapers.
All the while, it was taking a toll on his personal life. He suffered a break-down and his marriage fell apart. Inside the mosque he tried to sit on Abu Hamza’s left side, closer to the blind eye so that the preacher might not pick up the giveaway body language of an imposter.
And, knowing the lengths that Abu Hamza’s jihadi network would go to if they uncovered a spy in the midst, he always say facing the door. Until now.
After watching American justice do what British justice had failed to do, we marked it with a late, American lunch at Brinkly’s just up the road. He had the Grassfed Burger (no bacon) while I had the California Burger (perfectly satisfying but I’m not converted to the idea of avocado on a burger).
Reda took 20 minutes longer than me to eat. He was buzzing and there wasn’t much room for the burger as the words kept coming.
“I can finally say ‘mission accomplished’,” he said.