The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - OMAR AB­DEL RAH­MAN, 78 BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­

Egyp­tian-born Omar Ab­del Rah­man was called the “god­fa­ther” of rad­i­cal Is­lamist move­ments,

Omar Ab­del Rah­man, the Egyp­tian-born “blind sheikh” and spir­i­tual leader who was con­victed in 1995 of be­ing a mas­ter­mind of ter­ror­ist plots against the United States, and who was called the “god­fa­ther” of rad­i­cal Is­lamist move­ments, died Feb. 18 at a fed­eral prison in But­ner, N.C., where he was serv­ing a life sen­tence. He was 78.

Ken­neth McKoy, a Bureau of Pris­ons of­fi­cial, con­firmed the death to the As­so­ci­ated Press. The cause was di­a­betes and heart dis­ease.

Ab­del Rah­man, who was blind from an early age, had de­nounced sec­u­lar ten­den­cies in other Mus­lims since the 1960s and was linked for decades with ex­trem­ist Is­lamist cir­cles in Egypt and abroad. He was twice ac­quit­ted of help­ing plot the 1981 as­sas­si­na­tion of Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat — whom he de­nounced as “not a Mus­lim” — and built an al­liance with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden while liv­ing in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Af­ter mov­ing to the United States in 1990, Ab­del Rah­man preached at storefront mosques in Brook­lyn and New Jersey, and came un­der fed­eral scru­tiny af­ter a 1993 bomb­ing at the World Trade Cen­ter left six peo­ple dead and more than 1,000 in­jured.

Sev­eral of his fol­low­ers were con­victed in the bomb­ing, al­though Ab­del Rah­man was not. In­stead, he was ar­rested on broader con­spir­acy charges of plan­ning to “levy a war of ur­ban ter­ror­ism against the United States.”

Among other ac­tions, Ab­del Rah­man was ac­cused of plot­ting a “day of ter­ror” in which si­mul­ta­ne­ous bombs would blow up the United Na­tions, the Lin­coln and Hol­land tun­nels in New York City, the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge and the build­ing hous­ing New York’s FBI head­quar­ters.

“All I know is that I have noth­ing to do with this case other than that I am a cleric who prayed in a mosque,” Ab­del Rah­man said dur­ing his 1995 trial in fed­eral court in New York. “I did not speak. I did not give orders. I have noth­ing to do with any­thing.”

Even while he be­ing held for trial, Ab­del Rah­man de­liv­ered long ser­mons from jail, with his tele­phone mes­sages am­pli­fied by mi­cro­phones in the mosques fre­quented by his fol­low­ers.

Dur­ing the eight-week trial, Ab­del Rah­man’s high-pow­ered de­fense team in­cluded celebrity lawyers Wil­liam Kun­stler and one­time U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral Ram­sey Clark. The ev­i­dence in­cluded se­cretly recorded wire­taps, which pros­e­cu­tors said in­di­cated Ab­del Rah­man’s in­tent to wage a holy war in the United States.

In the end, he and nine fol­low­ers were found guilty. At his sen­tenc­ing, Ab­del Rah­man 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.

“This is an in­fi­del coun­try,” Ab­del Rah­man said in his ram­bling speech. “It has an in­fi­del White House. It has an in­fi­del Congress. It has an in­fi­del Pen­tagon. And this is an in­fi­del court­house.”

He was sen­tenced to life in prison.

He was held vir­tu­ally in­com­mu­ni­cado at sev­eral fed­eral fa­cil­i­ties and al­lowed only one 15minute phone call with his fam­ily ev­ery week to 10 days. Two of his sons, who had been as­so­ci­ated with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, were not per­mit­ted to visit.

None­the­less, Ab­del Rah­man be­came a pow­er­ful sym­bol in cer­tain quar­ters of the Mus­lim world. Al-Qaeda leader Ay­man al-Zawahiri called on Egyp­tians to kid­nap Amer­i­cans in ef­fort to win Ab­del Rah­man’s re­lease. Zawahiri’s younger brother pro­claimed Ab­del Rah­man “the god­fa­ther of all Is­lamic move­ments.”

Af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Peter Ber­gen, a jour­nal­ist and bi­og­ra­pher of bin Laden, de­scribed Ab­del Rah­man as the “spir­i­tual guide of 9/11.”

Omar Ab­del Rah­man was born May 3, 1938, in El Ga­malia, Egypt. He lost his eye­sight be­fore his first birth­day as a re­sult of ill­ness.

He studied a Braille ver­sion of the Ko­ran and had mem­o­rized it by age 11. In 1965, he re­ceived a doc­tor­ate in Is­lamic law from Cairo’s al-Azhar Univer­sity, the world’s old­est Is­lamic univer­sity.

He preached at a small mosque in ru­ral Egypt and be­came known for his crit­i­cism of the sec­u­lar lead­er­ship of Nasser, call­ing him “the wicked pharaoh.”

Af­ter be­ing jailed for sev­eral months for his com­ments, Ab­del Rah­man spent three years teach­ing in Saudi Ara­bia, where he be­came more deeply im­mersed in a mil­i­tant, hard-line form of Is­lam. Back in Egypt in the late 1970s, he was seen as the spir­i­tual leader of al-Gama al-Is­lamiyya, a rad­i­cal group later tied to ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties.

Ab­del Rah­man be­came an out­spo­ken op­po­nent of Sa­dat, whose over­tures to Is­rael, cul­mi­nat­ing in the 1979 Camp David Ac­cords, were seen as anath­ema to con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims. The Egyp­tian pres­i­dent was killed by as­sas­sins on Oct. 6, 1981.

Al­though he de­nounced Sa­dat as an in­fi­del, Ab­del Rah­man was ac­quit­ted of any role in the as­sas­si­na­tion plot. He later fled to Afghanistan, where he was closely al­lied with bin-Laden’s grow­ing al-Qaeda move­ment.

From 1985 to 1990, Ab­del Rah­man trav­eled widely through­out Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States, speak­ing to Mus­lim au­di­ences. He spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time in Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, a hot­bed of rad­i­cal Is­lamist sen­ti­ment.

By 1990, Ab­del Rah­man had re­turned to Egypt, where he was un­der close watch by au­thor­i­ties and barred from leav­ing the coun­try. He man­aged to es­cape, ac­cord­ing to one ac­count, by be­ing smug­gled out in a wash­ing ma­chine.

De­spite be­ing on anti-ter­ror­ism watch lists, he trav­eled to Su­dan, where he re­ceived a visa to en­ter the United States. Af­ter his ar­rival in New Jersey, he ob­tained a green card for res­i­dency. When it was re­voked in 1992, he asked for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum.

Ab­del Rah­man had two wives and 10 chil­dren; a com­plete list of sur­vivors could not be con­firmed. One of his sons, Ahmed Ab­del Rah­man, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in 2011.

In 2005, one of his lawyers, Lynne Ste­wart, was con­victed of pro­vid­ing ma­te­rial aid to a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion for smug­gling mes­sages from Ab­del Rah­man to the al-Gama al-Is­lamiyya or­ga­ni­za­tion. Af­ter first re­ceiv­ing a 28month prison sen­tence, which she be­gan to serve in 2009, she was re­sen­tenced in 2010 — to 10 years — but was re­leased in 2013 for health rea­sons.

In 2012, Egypt’s pres­i­dent, Mo­hamed Morsi, called for Ab­del Rah­man to be trans­ferred to Egypt for “hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons” as part of a pris­oner ex­change with the United States.

The re­quest was de­nied.


Omar Ab­del Rah­man, in 1993, dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Jersey City. He was linked to the 1993 World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing but was in­stead con­victed of broader con­spir­acy charges.

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