Radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri on trial in New York

By Ray Sanchez and Lena Jakobsson

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a radical Islamic cleric accused of conspiring to kidnap Americans in Yemen and planning to establish a jihad training camp in rural Oregon, began Thursday in federal court in Manhattan.

The terror trial opens less than a month after Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, was found guilty in the same federal courthouse of helping al Qaeda terrorists conspire to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists.

Federal prosecutors said al-Masri, the Kuwaiti cleric, played a crucial role as the organization's principal mouthpiece and recruiter, helping "restore al Qaeda's trove of new terrorists" as deadly missions turned its members into martyrs.

Al-Masri, who once called the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a "hero," pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of terrorism in 2012.

The fiery, one-eyed cleric appeared in an American courtroom after losing a lengthy legal battle to avoid extradition to the United States from Britain.

The charges against al-Masri include conspiracy in connection with the 1998 kidnapping of 16 Westerners in Yemen, and conspiring with others to establish an Islamic jihad training camp in rural Oregon in 1999.

If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Al-Masri was one of the highest-profile radical Islamic figures in Britain, where he was already sentenced to seven years for inciting racial hatred at his north London mosque and other terrorism-related charges.

Born in Egypt in 1958, he traveled to Britain to study before gaining citizenship through marriage in the 1980s.

A one-time nightclub bouncer in London's Soho district, al-Masri -- also known as Mustafa Kamal Mustafa -- has said he lost both hands and one eye while fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He often wears a hook in place of his missing hand.

In 1997, al-Masri became the imam of a north London mosque, where his hate-filled speeches attacking the West began to attract national attention and followers. One of those followers was Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber" who attempted to blow up a Miami-bound passenger airplane three months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Al-Masri has called the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center "a towering day in history" and described bin Laden as "a good guy and a hero."

He also described the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 as "punishment from Allah" because the astronauts were Christian, Hindu and Jewish.

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