AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A Jordanian court on Wednesday acquitted radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada — known for his fiery pro-al-Qaida speeches — of involvement in a plot to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in Jordan more than a decade ago.
The ruling capped a lengthy legal odyssey for the 53-year-old cleric who has been described as a onetime lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, but in recent months emerged as a harsh critic of the Islamic State militant group. Abu Qatada was deported from Britain to Jordan last year, after years of fighting extradition.
The cleric's release comes at a time when Jordan views the Islamic State militants, who have seized large swaths of territory in neighboring Syria and Iraq, as a growing threat. With his credentials as a leading jihadist preacher, Abu Qatada could help legitimize the international campaign against the Islamic State and curb the group's appeal among Jordan's disaffected youth, analysts said.
The preacher was given a hero's welcome Wednesday in the Nazzal neighborhood of the Jordanian capital Amman. Women ululated as he walked up several flights of an outdoor stairway to his family home, thronged by journalists and supporters trying to duck hard candy being thrown from above in celebration.
Abu Qatada refused to answer questions about religion and politics, asking for privacy. He briefly emerged from his home with his tearful mother, Aisha, holding her close. "This is my mother. I missed her," he said.
The court session that set him free only lasted a few minutes. The gray-bearded Abu Qatada walked into a defendant's cage in Jordan's State Security Court and seven black-clad riot police then ringed the cage, largely blocking him from view.
Judge Ahmed Qattarneh said the three-judge panel acquitted Abu Qatada "because of the lack of convincing charges against him."
When the verdict was announced, Abu Qatada briefly punched his left fist in the air. Several family members jumped up from their seats, one calling out "Allahu Akbar," or "God is greatest."
Though tried in the security court, the case was heard by civilian judges.
Abu Qatada was charged with involvement in plans to target Israeli and American tourists and Western diplomats in Jordan in 2000 — the so-called "millennium plot."
He was acquitted in June in another case, a foiled 1999 plan to attack an American school in Amman. He had pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges.
In Britain, Home Secretary Theresa May said that "due process of the law has taken place in Jordan," adding that it's "absolutely as it should be."
May noted that Abu Qatada had been deported from Britain because courts there determined he posed a threat to national security. May had been instrumental in removing Abu Qatada from Britain.
The cleric "will not be returning" to Britain because he is subject to a deportation order and a U.N. travel ban, she said.
The West Bank-born 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.
He 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, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, 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.
While in custody in Jordan, Abu Qatada had emerged as an influential critic of the Islamic State, an al-Qaida splinter group that has killed thousands of people, beheaded Westerners — including two American journalists — and captured large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq in a blitz this summer.
In a court appearance earlier this month, Abu Qatada said he is certain the Islamic State group will be vanquished, adding that "they have the ability to kill and destroy, not to build."
His comments reflected the bitter rivalry between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, which has rejected al-Qaida's central authority. The al-Qaida branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, has fought the Islamic State.
Abu Qatada's criticism has given legitimacy to the struggle against the Islamic State group, said Fawaz Gerges, a Britain-based expert on Islamic militants, speaking before the verdict.
"The fact that the Jordanian authorities are allowing him (Abu Qatada) to make statements shows the importance of his voice at this particular junction in the struggle against Daesh," said Gerges, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Another well-known jihadi ideologue in Jordan, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, has also come out against the Islamic State group.
Over the weekend, al-Maqdisi called on Islamic State militants to release British aid worker Alan Henning and said non-Muslims who aid needy Muslims should be protected.
Al-Maqdisi was released from prison in Jordan in June, after serving five years on terrorism charges. He 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.
Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.