AMMAN, Jordan — A military court on Thursday acquitted a radical Jordanian preacher known for his fiery pro-al-Qaida rhetoric of involvement in a foiled 1999 plot to attack an American school in Amman but postponed a ruling on other terrorism charges.
It was a welcome victory for Abu Qatada, described as a onetime lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, nearly a year after he was deported back to his homeland by Britain after losing a decade-long legal battle over demands for his extradition. As the ruling was read Thursday, Abu Qatada's family and relatives erupted into cheers. The women embraced and kissed one another. Abu Qatada, sporting a chest-length gray beard, smiled and waved from inside the defendants' cage.
The State Security Court in Amman said it found insufficient evidence to convict the 53-year-old Muslim preacher in the 1999 plot, but he will remain in detention pending a verdict on a charge of involvement in a plot to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in 2000. It said it will render a decision in that case on Sept. 7. Abu Qatada has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The timing of the trial has cast a spotlight on statements by Abu Qatada that have underscored the bitter rift between the al-Qaida movement founded by bin Laden and a splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has rejected the central leadership's authority while fighting to carve out a self-styled Islamic state in the Middle East.
During his time in custody, Abu Qatada has made no secret of his militant views, advising foreign fighters to remain in Syria and urging suicide attacks in Lebanon against Shiite targets. But while he has expressed support for extremists fighting in Syria he has criticized the Islamic State, which has seized large swaths of Iraq as well as areas in neighboring Syria.
He said in January that the Islamic State "ignored instructions" from al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri to confine its activities to Iraq and that its fighters had been "misled to fight a war that is not holy."
The split has led to fierce infighting between the breakaway group and rival Islamic militants as well as moderate rebels and activists in Syria, a conflict that has threatened to upstage the civil war against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based expert on Islamist groups, said the acquittal may be part of a government strategy to deepen a wedge between Jordan's own ultraconservative Muslims and more hard-line militant groups like the Islamic State.
"It's a message to ... distinguish between those who are considered moderate, who have no aims of carrying out (violent) operations in Jordan, and the more radical fringe of ISIL," he said.
Earlier this month, Jordan released Essam al-Barqawi, better known as Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, after he served a five-year sentence on terror charges. Maqdisi was the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
But Maqdisi, like Abu Qatada, has been critical of the splinter group that emerged from the remnants of al-Zarqawi's group.
Abu Qatada fled a Jordanian crackdown on militants, arriving in Britain on a forged passport in 1993. He was granted asylum a year later, but eventually wore out his welcome because of his suspected militant activities.
The preacher had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to life in prison on both Jordanian charges. But on his extradition to Jordan last July, those sentences were suspended and he was ordered to stand a new trial.
Abu Qatada had questioned the impartiality of Jordan's military court, an issue that delayed his deportation from Britain for years. But last June, Britain and Jordan ratified a treaty on torture, paving the way for his extradition.
Following more complaints later by his defense team, the Jordanian military court brought civilian judges to preside over the case.
"We are happy," said Um Ahmed, Abu Qatada's sister. "But I want him to leave with us."
Abu Qatada, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, has been described in courts in Britain and Spain as a senior al-Qaida figure in Europe who had close ties to the late bin Laden.
Britain accused him of links with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Audio recordings of some of the cleric's sermons were found in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, used by some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Britain's immigration and security minister, James Brokenshire, said that because of the deportation order, Abu Qatada will never be able to return to Britain.
"While the courts in Jordan have acquitted (Abu) Qatada of one of the two charges against him, it is right the due process of law is allowed to take place in his own country," Brokenshire said after the ruling. "We await a verdict on the remaining charge."
Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.