Rows of small restaurants, and shops – selling everything from porcelain lavatories to books are crammed along the main street. Small grey concrete apartment blocks are crammed together on a steep mountainside, with a maze of narrow alleyways running between them.
“Omar was a normal child,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, a childhood friend of Abu Qatada. “He was a popular boy in school. He was smart, kind and had charisma.
He took part in the drama committee, acting in plays. In the afternoons, when school was finished, we would play football in the street”.
In those days, the district was a stronghold for Palestinian guerrilla groups: “the central issue was the liberation of Palestine. There was no political Islam back then. People were religious but it was more a social phenomenon rather than a political Islamic ideologue,” said Mr Hanieh.
Regional events, the humiliation of the failure of Arab countries to “liberate Palestine” in the ’67 war with Israel, the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Soviets entering Afghanistan, and the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian regime, resulting in a massacre of thousands in the Syrian city of Hama had a profound effect on the impressionable young Omar.
“And then there was the influence of petro-money in the Gulf. People started to go to the Gulf and return influenced by Salafi Wahhabis,” said Mr Hanieh. “We started a change in Jordan; mini skirts had been in fashion, but now women began dressing conservatively and wearing the veil or nikab”.
Aged 14, Omar too began to change his attire to the long white robe, or dish dashes and turban worn by members of the Dawa, a group promoting Islam. “It was strange because it was not the fashion for youths to embrace religion back then. We used to tease him,” said Mr Hanieh. “He would try to get us to join him in prayer”.
Just a few year’s later, aged 17, Mr Othman was preaching at Dawa’s weekly meetings, which were attended by as many as 3,000 people. “He used to have a special way with words. It was unusual to hear someone so young speak, as it was usually a privilege reserved for the religious leaders,” one member told the Telegraph.
Against the will of his parents, he then decided to study Sharia or Islamic law in school. A teacher at Mr Othman’s school – a rundown grey-brown concrete complex – who did not want to be named, recalled: “He was committed, religious and righteous and he memorised parts of the Koran.” Ibrahim Othman, 33, one of Omar’s nine siblings said: “I remember my brother used to read for 20 hours a day.” Gradually Mr Hanieh too became drawn in, and he and Mr Othman became Salafis, Muslims practicing a strict interpretation of Islam: “I remember we burnt all our pictures, convinced the images were irreligious and we used to ban people taking photographs,” said Mr Hanieh.
After studying Sharia at Jordan University, Mr Othman quickly married a woman with a similar ideology to his (after he was spurned by a “true love” in university, friends have said) and, in the mid-1980s, he joined the Jordanian army, working as a religious leader or imam for prisoners for approximately four years.
Marwan Shehadeh, an old friend and fellow colleague in Islamist activism said: “He had disagreements with the Mufti – overall religious leader – because he had some strong views. Because of this he left the military.
He started to become more politically and religiously active, joining the hardline Islamist group ‘Ansar wa-Sunna’. “We published books and leaflets preaching a hardline interpretation of Islam,” said Mr Shehadeh, who has himself been arrested several times for his beliefs.
After continuing his religious studies in Malaysia, in 1992 Mr Othman joined the mujahideen in Peshawar, fighting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Many Arab regimes encouraged their countries’ young men to go to the war.
But when the war ended, those same Arab regimes saw the fighters, pumping with testosterone, and now radicalised by war, as a threat. They were deemed outcasts, often arrested or banned from returning to their home countries.
A “TRULY DANGEROUS INDIVIDUAL”
“Omar chose instead to go Britain, and this is where he really began his path to jihad [holy war],” said Mr Hanieh. “He was behind a bulletin distributed in the Arab world that became the mouthpiece for the Islamic armed group, al-Ansari wa Sunna.” He arrived in Britain in September 1993 on a forged United Arab Emirates passport. He claimed, and was granted, asylum for himself and his family on the grounds that Jordanian authorities had tortured him.
Mr Shehadeh said: “Around 1994 he became a religious leader for radical groups in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It was these groups that began to call him ‘Abu Qatada al-Filistini’.” A 127-page dossier by the Home Office claims that in these years, from his base at the Four Feathers Social Club in Baker Street, central London, Abu Qatada became a godfather of global terrorism, whose sermons and writings have inspired several members of al-Qaeda. Videos of his sermons were found in the Hamburg flat of Mohammed Atta, a ringleader among the 9/11 hijackers.
Mr Shehadeh said: “He issued a fatwa – religious order – permitting the killing of the children and wives of soldiers, because they killed Muslim children and women. Abu Qatada started to be a mentor for international jihad and he started to be also a point of reference for jihadist groups.” In 1999 Jordanian courts convicted the cleric in his absence of a conspiracy to carry out bombings in Jordan, which resulted in successful attacks on the American School and the Jerusalem Hotel in Amman in 1998.
Initially condemning him to death, his sentence was then reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour.
He is also accused of involvement in a failed plan known as the “millennium conspiracy” in the year 2000, to detonate explosions against Western and Israeli targets during millennium celebrations.
In the first few years of his arrival in the UK, “these jihadist groups were hardly targeted,” by British police, said Hanieh. “These groups had never targeted Europe or the US and so they were not perceived as a threat.” There was a “confusing and informal relationship” between the jihadists and Islamists operating out of “Londonistan”, to use the sobriquet of the time, and British intelligence agencies, a former Islamists based in capital city at the time have told the Telegraph: “They would provide us with a safe haven and the freedom to express ourselves and would, in exchange use us to pressure Arab regimes for their own interests,” he said, asking not to be identified.
ON THE RUN AND THE LONG ROAD TO JORDAN
That changed on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Controversial laws were quickly passed allowing for the detention of Islamists who were now viewed as a threat.
His friends claim that Abu Qatada “was against the 9/11 attacks” and the change of the focus of some jihadists from oppressive Arab regimes, to the “far enemy” of the west.
Nonetheless, on the eve of the new legislation in the UK Abu Qatada went on the run, avoiding being captured for 10 months. Since his arrest in 2002, Abu Qatada has been in and out of UK jails and detention centres – though never convicted of any offence – as the British government fought to deport him.
Last week Britain and Jordan signed an extradition treaty that paved the way for the cleric’s deportation by guaranteeing that evidence obtained by torture will not be used against him in a retrial.
Once he touches down in a military airport near Amman, Abu Qatada will be detained in Muwaqqer, the country’s best, and high security, prison, located in the Jordanian desert. Then will begin the long processing of trying him for crimes for which he was convicted in absentia.
On the dusty streets of his home neighbourhood of Ras al-Ain, his brother, Ibrahim, told the Telegraph: “Omar can stand trial because he is innocent and he will soon be released. I haven’t seen my brother in 20 years, of course I am happy he is coming home”.