SAN DIEGO — An immigration judge tentatively granted asylum Wednesday to the son of a Hamas founder who turned his back on his father's terrorist group and became a spy for Israel.
The ruling came after the federal government abruptly dropped concerns that Mosab Hassan Yousef was a terrorist threat.
Yousef, 32, was greeted by a small group of cheering supporters as he left an immigration detention center where the 15-minute hearing was held under heavy security.
He had argued that he would be killed if he was deported because he spied on Hamas for Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency and abandoned Islam after becoming a Christian.
"I will keep fighting the ideology that is behind terrorists because I know how they think," he told reporters in the parking lot. "I know that this is the real danger that is facing liberty, facing freedom, facing humanity."
The Department of Homeland Security initially denied Yousef's asylum request in February 2009, saying he had been involved in terrorism and was a threat to the U.S.
Kerri Calcador, a government attorney, gave no explanation in court Wednesday for the sudden change in the U.S. position.
Yousef said he could not explain the turnaround. His attorney Steven Seick said he was "totally surprised."
Four months ago, Yousef published memoirs in which he claimed to be one of Shin Bet's best assets while working as the Green Prince, a reference to his Hamas pedigree and the Islamists' signature green color.
In recent weeks, Yousef rallied support from members of Congress, national security experts and Christian groups.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey said deporting Yousef would discourage other potential spies.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that such an action would set us back years in the war on terrorism," Woolsey wrote in a letter released by Seick. "Mosab's deportation would be such an inhumane act it would constitute a blight on American history."
Immigration judge Rico Bartolomei said Yousef will be allowed to remain in the U.S. after he is fingerprinted and passes routine background checks.
Homeland Security said in a previous court filing that Yousef "discusses his extensive involvement with Hamas in great detail" in his recent memoir.
The filing cites a passage in which Yousef identifies five suspects in a 2001 suicide bombing to a Shin Bet official and admits driving them to safe houses.
The filing was not specific about the threat Yousef might pose to the U.S.
Yousef has said his spy work for Israel required him to do anything he could to learn about Hamas, and neither he nor Israeli officials knew the five people were suspects in the bombing when he gave them rides.
"Yes, while working for Israeli intelligence, I posed as a terrorist," Yousef wrote on his blog last month. "Yes, I carried a gun. Yes, I was in terrorist meetings with Yassir Arafat, my father and other Hamas leaders. It was part of my job."
Gonen Ben Itzhak, a retired Israeli intelligence officer who once supervised Yousef, had traveled from Israel to be the first witness at Wednesday's hearing. The judge, however, made his ruling before Itzhak took the stand.
"Basically, I wanted to say that Mosab was not a terrorist," Itzhak said later. "He was not affiliated with Hamas."
Israel has not commented on Yousef's claims, though members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee wrote to him this month to thank him for his work for Shin Bet.
In his book, Yousef describes growing up admiring Hamas and hating Israel. He said he bought machine guns and a handgun in 1996, but the guns didn't work and he was arrested by Israeli forces before he killed anyone.
Yousef says he started working with Shin Bet after witnessing Hamas brutalities in prison that left him disillusioned. He gravitated toward Christianity after his release in 1997, joining a study group after a chance encounter with a British tourist at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.
He says he joined his father Sheik Hassan Yousef at many meetings with Palestinian leaders and reported them to Shin Bet. His father, a senior Hamas leader who is serving a six-year sentence in an Israeli prison, disowned him in March.
Yousef was free during his asylum case, settling in San Diego after coming to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 2007. He said he wants to become a U.S. citizen and pursue a master's degree in history or geography.