Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Islamic sheikh whose fiery sermons blessed the assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and a 1993 plot to bomb and kill in New York, died on Saturday, February 18th at a federal prison near Raleigh, N.C., where he was serving a life sentence. He was 78.
The death was announced through Twitter by his son and daughter in his native Egypt, and confirmed by spokesman Greg Norton at the Butner federal prison complex. Norton said that the cause was complications of diabetes and coronary artery disease.
الشيخ عمر توفاه الله
— أسماء عمر عبدالرحمن (@DrAsmaaOmar) February 18, 2017
A circle of his followers were convicted in the February 26, 1993, truck bombing of New York's World Trade Center that killed six people and an unborn child — eight years before al-Qaida's suicide plane hijackers brought the towers down. Abdel Rahman was then arrested by authorities who accused him and others of conspiring to bomb the United Nations and other New York landmarks, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
The conspiracy hoped to kill hundreds of people, Jewish officials in New York state, murder Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and force the United States to abandon its support for Israel and Egypt. The plot was forestalled before it could be executed. He was convicted with nine of his followers in 1995.
Born to a poor merchant in the Egyptian Nile Delta village of al-Gamalia, al-Dakahlia Governorate near the Mediterranean on May 3, 1938, Abdel Rahman was blind by the age of 10 months. Still, he said in his autobiography that he memorized Islam's holy book, the Quran, by age 11.
The young man was inspired by the teachings of one of the most important theological teachers in the Twentieth Century, Sayyid Qutb, a fellow Egyptian and visionary for the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike other conservative Muslim theologians, Qutb taught that followers of Islam must wage jihad "to wipe out tyranny" and bring freedom through Islamic law.
He trained to be an Islamic scholar, completing his master's degree in in Cairo in 1967, just after his mentor Qutb was executed by the Egyptian government and the defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel. He received a doctoral degree at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a premier center of Islamic learning. He developed a doctrine that devout Muslims were obliged to kill rulers who did not institute and follow Islamic law.
Abdel Rahman was also deeply influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, the 14th-century Muslim teacher who arose at a weak point in the Islamic world. The medieval cleric preached a return to the basics of the Quran as a way of reviving the strength of the Islamic world. Abdel Rahman's contemporary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran was also a follower of Taymiyyah's doctrines.
Although these Muslim extremists hearkened back to medieval Islam, their ideology was closer to the modern totalitarian thinking that arose in the West. Their commitment to violent imposition of total control over minds, social life, and action resembled the Nazi and Communist movements. Some other conservative Islamic reactions to the problems of modernity did not include the violent total control of life by Islamic law. These Muslim theologians denounced Abdel Rahman's type of theology as unIslamic.
The newly minted specialist in Islamic law gained a following of other young firebrands and became the emir of a jihadist organization, Gama'at al-Islamia (The Islamic Group).
Abdel Rahman's preaching attracted widespread notice in the Islamic world. In the 1980s he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to teach mujahadeen who were fighting the Soviet occupation. He enlisted his two teenage sons into the jihad and made contact with Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden later credited Abdel Rahman with the fatwa (the sharia-law edict) that approved the 9/11 jihadist attacks. Abdel Rahman's fatwa read in part: "Muslims everywhere to dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, . . . shoot down their planes, [and] kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them."
In 1981, radical Muslim army officers assassinated Anwar Sadat, the rule of Egypt who made peace with Israel. Abdel Rahman was accused of involvement in the conspiracy but was acquitted.
Abdel Rahman had denounced Egypt’s secularist leaders as corrupt pharaohs and infidels. He denounced the corruption that was seeping into Muslim life from the materialistic and hypersexualized West. Saad Hasaballah, a lawyer who represented Abdel Rahman, said the sheikh told the officers involved in the plot that a secular leader, who ignored Islamic law, deserved death — although he never mentioned Sadat by name.
In 1989, Abdel Rahman was put on trial again in Egypt, charged with instigating an anti-government riot in Fayoum. Placed under house arrest, he managed to escape, making his way in 1990 from Sudan to New York City and New Jersey. United States immigration authorities claimed that a computer error had lead to their bungling of the screening for dangerous characters. Abdel Rahman's name was on an immigration watch list. Later, he was given a green card and permanent US resident status. The New York Times reported that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had helped the sheikh because of his close connection to the mujaheddin fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
The sheikh became a popular fiery preacher at Masjid Al-Farooq and other mosques in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
But in 1993, his followers attempted to blow up the World Trade Center. The federal authorities obtained information through informant recordings of the Sheikh discussing bombing targets and plans.
His trial hinged on transcripts of secretly recorded meetings with Emad Salem, his bodyguard who had become an F.B.I. informant. His recordings showed Abdel Rahman discussing potential bombing targets with Salem, and some of the other defendants also discussing bombing plans with each other and with Salem. In addition, videotapes showed four defendants mixing diesel oil and fertilizer at a Queens garage for the intended bombs. The garage, which the suspects called a safe house, had actually been fitted out by the government with hidden cameras and microphones for a sting operation.
In court, Abdel Rahman maintained his innocence and from jail delivered long sermons to mosques where his followers gathered.
On Oct. 1, 1995, Abdel Rahman was convicted, along with nine other defendants, on sedition charges in Federal District Court in Manhattan. He was found guilty of guiding a conspiracy to wage “a war of urban terrorism.” Another defendant, El Sayyid A. Nosair, was convicted of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990, an assassination once regarded as a crazed gunman's isolated attack but later portrayed by prosecutors as the first blow in a four-year terrorist agenda.
At Abdel Rahman's January 1996 sentencing, he spoke in Arabic for almost 90 minutes, touching on such subjects as birth control, homosexuality, former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his U.S. green-card status. He proclaimed his innocence, "I have not committed any crime except telling people about Islam."
He called the trial “an attack on the words of God” and said the United States, “an enemy of Islam,” was seeking to give him “a slow death.”
“This is an infidel country,” Abdel Rahman said. “It has an infidel White House. It has an infidel Congress. It has an infidel Pentagon. And this is an infidel courthouse.”
Instead, the sheikh foresaw that “America will go and be withered and this civilization will be destroyed. Nothing will remain." He vowed, "We will not kneel."
Judge Michael Mukasey, who later became Attorney General under President George W. Bush, sentenced Abdel Rahman to life in prison.
The verdicts were greeted with anger by some worshipers at mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., where Abdel Rahman had preached. Some said he was unfairly convicted.
Many others said that Abdel Rahman and his violent followers had betrayed true Islamic ideals. Some felt that they had been unfairly contaminated by the actions of the few. One news report cited Riaz Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey, saying that he was disturbed by the trial's effect on the image of Islam in America. "I resent that an individual's act leads to the condemnation of a religion," he reportedly said.
In 2012, Andrew C. McCarthy, who helped to lead the prosecution in the case against Abdel Rahman, wrote:
"On September 21, 2000, only three weeks before al-Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole [killing 17 members of the U.S. Navy], al-Jazeera televised a 'Convention to Support the Honorable Omar Abdel Rahman.' Front and center were Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (then bin Laden’s deputy, now his successor as emir of al-Qaeda). They warned that unless Sheikh Abdel Rahman was freed, jihadist attacks against the United States would be stepped up. At the same event, Mohammed Abdel Rahman, an al-Qaeda operative who is one of the sheikh’s sons, exhorted the crowd to 'avenge your Sheikh' and 'go to the spilling of blood.'
Abdel Rahman had two wives and 10 children. At least three sons became closely tied to al-Qaeda. Asim became a close associate of bin Laden. Another son was killed in a United States drone strike in Afghanistan in 2011. Mohammed Omar Abdul Rahman is in the custody of the United States. The BBC reported that this son's email led to the capture of one of the principal architects of the 911 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.