3 May 1938|
Al Gammaliyyah, Dakahlia Governorate, Egypt
|Other names||The Blind Sheikh|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment plus 15 years|
|Criminal status||Incarcerated at FMC Butner Medical Center|
Aisha Hassan Gouda|
|Conviction(s)||Seditious conspiracy, Terrorism|
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (Arabic: عمر عبد الرحمن, ‘Umar ‘Abd ar-Raḥman; born 3 May 1938), commonly known in the United States as "The Blind Sheikh", is a blind Egyptian Muslim leader who is currently serving a life sentence at the Butner Medical Center which is part of the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, United States. Formerly a resident of New York City, Abdel-Rahman and nine others were convicted of seditious conspiracy, which requires only that a crime be planned, not that it necessarily be attempted. His prosecution grew out of investigations of the World Trade Center 1993 bombings.
Abdel-Rahman was accused of being the leader of Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (also known as "The Islamic Group"), a militant Islamist movement in Egypt that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Egyptian governments. The group is responsible for many acts of violence, including the November 1997 Luxor massacre, in which 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians were killed.
Abdel-Rahman was born in the city of al-Gamalia, Dakahlia Governorate, Egypt, on May 3, 1938. He lost his eyesight when he was 10 months old, probably due to childhood diabetes. He studied a Braille version of the Qur'an as a child, had it memorized by age 11 and was sent to an Islamic boarding school. He developed an interest in the works of the Islamic purists Ibn Taymiyah and Sayyid Qutb. He studied at Cairo University's School of Theology and later earned a Doctorate in Tafsir from the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Soon after leaving university, Abdel-Rahman began preaching against the secular regime of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Abdel-Rahman became one of the most prominent and outspoken Muslim clerics to denounce Egypt’s secularism.
Omar has two wives who have borne him 10 children: Aisha Hassan Gouda (7 sons), and Aisha Zohdi (3 children). His sons include Abdullah, Ahmed, Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman and Asim Abdulrahman. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003. He was later extradited to Egypt and released in 2010. Ahmed was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan in 2011.
Imprisonment in Egypt
During the 1970s, Abdel-Rahman developed close ties with two of Egypt’s most militant organizations, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya ("The Islamic Group"). By the 1980s, he had emerged as the leader of Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, although he was still revered by followers of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which at the time was being led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, later to become an Al Qaeda principal. Abdel-Rahman spent three years in Egyptian jails while awaiting trial on charges of issuing a fatwa resulting in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat by Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Although Abdel-Rahman was not convicted of conspiracy in the Sadat assassination, he was expelled from Egypt following his acquittal. He made his way to Afghanistan in the mid-1980s where he contacted his former professor, Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) along with Osama bin Laden. Rahman built a strong rapport with bin Laden during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and following Azzam’s murder in 1989 Rahman assumed control of the international jihadists arm of MAK/Al Qaeda.
Activities in the US
Abdel-Rahman was issued a tourist visa to visit the United States by the consul of the United States Embassy in Khartoumi, Sudan, despite his name being listed on a U.S. State Department terrorist watch list. Rahman entered the United States in July 1990 via Saudi Arabia, Peshawar, and Sudan. The State Department revoked his tourist visa on 17 November. Despite this, in April 1991, he obtained a green card from the Immigration and Naturalization Services office in Newark, New Jersey. After leaving the U.S. to go on an overseas trip, he tried to re-enter the U.S. in August 1991. At that point, U.S. officials recognized that he was on the lookout list and began the procedure to revoke his permanent resident status. The U.S. government allowed him to enter the country, as he had the right to appeal the decision to revoke his residency status. But he failed to appeal the decision and so on 6 March 1992, the U.S. government revoked his green card. He then requested political asylum. A hearing on that was held on 20 January 1993.
He traveled widely in the United States and Canada. Despite the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Abdel-Rahman was deeply anti-American and spoke out against it. He issued a fatwa in the US that declared it lawful to rob banks and kill Jews in the US. His sermons condemned Americans as the "descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists". He called on Muslims to assail the West, "cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land".
Preaching at three mosques in the New York City area, Abdel-Rahman was soon surrounded by a core group of devoted followers that included persons who became responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which took place five weeks into the Bill Clinton administration. One of Rahman's followers, El Sayyid Nosair, was linked to the assassination of Israeli nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League. He was subsequently acquitted of murder but convicted on gun possession charges.
In 1993, Egypt suffered a spate of terrorist attacks. That year, over 1,100 people were either killed or wounded due to a terrorist attack in Egypt (by comparison, the number for the prior year was 322). According to the New York Times, these attacks had "shaken the Egyptian Government."
Abdel-Rahman was the spiritual leader of the terrorists who were conducting these attacks (the terrorists were members of his Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya). At that time, he was recording his sermons in Brooklyn on cassette tapes and sending them to Egypt. These tapes were duplicated and given to tens of thousands of people in Cairo. In these tapes, Abdel-Rahman called for the murder of infidels, the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, and for Egypt to become a pure Islamic state.
"Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman uses New York as a base," said Mamdouh Beltagui, the head of the state information service in Egypt. "He raises funds and sends money back to Egypt with couriers. He passes on messages to his followers, giving orders about what they should do next and who they should target. We do not understand why the U.S. authorities have allowed him to enter the country."
El Sayyid Nosair later stood trial as a co-conspirator of Rahman. Both men received life sentences for conspiracy to use explosives against New York landmarks, and plotting to assassinate U.S. politicians. Nosair was convicted of nine counts, including seditious conspiracy, murder of Kahane in aid of racketeering, attempted murder in aid of racketeering, attempted murder of a postal police officer, use of a firearm in a murder, use of a firearm in the commission of a murder, use of a firearm in an attempted murder, and possession of a firearm, and received life plus 15 years of imprisonment. Nosair's relatives obtained funds to pay for Nosair's defense from Osama bin Laden.
Arrest and conviction
After the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993, the FBI began to investigate Rahman and his followers more closely. An Egyptian informant wearing a listening device for the FBI managed to record Rahman saying he preferred attacks be concentrated on US military targets, but also stating acts of violence against civilian targets were not illicit. The most startling plan, the government charged, was to set off five bombs in 10 minutes, blowing up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and a federal building housing the FBI. Government prosecutors showed videotapes of defendants mixing bomb ingredients in a garage before their arrest in 1993. Rahman was arrested on 24 June 1993, along with nine of his followers. On 1 October 1995, he was convicted of seditious conspiracy, and in 1996 was sentenced to life in solitary confinement without parole.
Rahman is currently serving his life sentence at the Butner Federal Medical Center in North Carolina.
Efforts for release
In a speech to supporters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on 30 June 2012, Mohamed Morsi briefly mentioned that he would work to free Omar Abdel-Rahman, along with other Egyptians who were arrested during the revolution. A Brotherhood spokesperson later said that the extradition was for humanitarian reasons and that Morsi didn't intend to overturn Abdel-Rahman's criminal convictions.
During the 2013 In Aménas hostage crisis, a Mauritanian news organization reported that the kidnappers had offered to swap American hostages in Algeria for the release of Abdel-Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated that the United States would not negotiate with the terrorists.
Abdel-Rahman’s imprisonment has become a rallying point for Islamic militants around the world, including Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden [d.2011]. In 1997, members of his group Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya conducted two attacks against European visitors to Egypt, including the massacre of 58 tourists at Deir el-Bahri in Luxor. In addition to killing women and children, the attackers mutilated a number of bodies and distributed leaflets throughout the scene demanding Rahman’s release.
In 2005, members of Rahman’s legal team, including lawyer Lynne Stewart, were convicted of facilitating communication between Rahman and members of the terrorist organization Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya in Egypt. They received long federal prison sentences, based on their violated obligation to keep Rahman incommunicado while providing him legal counsel.
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