- Muslim cleric with decades of involvement with terrorist groups
- “Spiritual leader” of Osama bin Laden
- Mastermind of numerous terrorist plots
- Deems the West in general, and the United States in particular, responsible for all of the world’s evils
Born in Egypt in 1938, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman is a blind Muslim cleric (he lost his eyesight at a young age due to childhood diabetes) whose religious fervor was sparked initially by his contempt for secularist elements in the Egyptian government. Considered to be the spiritual leader and role model of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda associates. Rahman is known for issuing many fatwas, or religious rulings; one of these in particular sanctions the robbing and killing of Christians if they are believed to be in any way anti-Muslim.
Holding a degree in Qur'anic studies from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, in the 1970s Rahman developed close ties with two of Egypt’s most militant organizations, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group). By the 1980s Rahman had emerged as the leader of the Islamic Group, although he was still revered by members of EIJ, which at the time was led by future al Qaeda principal Ayman al-Zawahiri.
For three years Rahman was incarcerated and tortured in Egyptian jails as he awaited trial on charges that he had issued a fatwa resulting in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Rahman held Sadat in contempt for having signed a 1978 peace agreement (the Camp David accords) with Israel. “Sadat was not a Muslim,” said Rahman. “He made a mockery of Islam and its principles.”
Rahman was eventually acquitted of Sadat’s murder, but he was nonetheless expelled from Egypt for having created the climate that had led to the President’s killing. In the mid-1980s he made his way to Afghanistan where he contacted his former professor, Abdullah Azzam, co-founder (with Osama bin Laden) of Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK). Rahman built a strong rapport with bin Laden during the Afghan war against the Soviets and, after Azzam’s murder in 1989, assumed control of the international jihadist arm of MAK/Al Qaeda.
In May 1990 Rahman brought his brand of radical Islam to the United States, the nation he blamed for having corrupted Egypt’s government with secularism. Said Rahman, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (who succeeded Sadat in 1981 and remains the country’s leader to this day) “looks after Western interests. He is the obedient dog of the West.” The Sheik sought to punish America with ruthless force for its perceived transgressions against the Muslim world generally, and against Egypt in particular.
Rahman entered the United States on a tourist visa despite the fact that his name was on the official U.S. terrorist list. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) granted him permanent resident status as a religious leader. Preaching at three mosques in the New York area, Rahman quickly drew a core group of devoted followers, one of whom was linked to the 1990 shooting death of the orthodox rabbi and political activist Meir Kahane.
In March 1992, Rahman was stripped of his green card and was subsequently summoned to a federal hearing on charges that he had lied on his visa application. An INS administrative judge ordered that Rahman be deported from the United States, but Rahman fought this ruling successfully.
From his base in the U.S., Rahman, through his fiery sermons on cassette tapes, directed his Egyptian followers from afar. His organization, the Islamic Group, assassinated Egyptian government officials such as the Speaker of the Parliament, Rifat al-Mahjub, in its efforts to establish an Islamic state in that country. Members of the group also targeted Coptic Christians and Western tourists in Egypt.
In October 1995, Rahman was convicted (along with nine co-defendants) of planning to wage a "war of urban terrorism" against the United States; this war, which Rahman never successfully launched, was intended to feature a day of deadly terror in and around New York City: five bombs that were to blow up, respectively, in the United Nations Building, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and the main Federal office building in Manhattan. According to prosecutors, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC), which killed six people, was also part of the conspiracy, although neither Rahman nor his co-defendants were accused of helping to carry out that attack. The prosecutors did assert, however, that the four men who had been convicted in the WTC bombing in an earlier trial, as well as two others who were still awaiting trial in the bombing case, were co-conspirators with Rahman.
Rahman was also found guilty of plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Mubarak in 1993. In 1996 the Sheik was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, over the objections of his defense attorney Lynne Stewart.
Just before his sentencing in the WTC case, Rahman delivered a long, ardent speech in Arabic, translated by an interpreter, in which he stated: “This case is nothing but an extension of the American war against Islam.”
Following a week of deadly Mideast clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in 2000, Rahman, from the confines of his prison cell, called on Muslims to kill Jews worldwide. “Jihad is now a duty for the entire [Islamic] nation until Palestine and the Aqsa mosque are liberated and Jews are either pushed into their graves or back where they came from,” said the Sheik’s statement, which was relayed to the media through the jailed cleric’s legal advisers.
According to one federal prosecutor, in the summer of 2004 the incarcerated Rahman began deliberately trying to damage his own health, in an attempt to motivate his followers to retaliate against the United States for allegedly neglecting his medical needs. At that time, the diabetic Sheik stopped taking his insulin medication and began eating large quantities of M&Ms in an effort to exacerbate his condition. Moreover, he complained about not being served the specific brand of tea he preferred in prison.
On December 6, 2006, Rahman spat up blood and was rushed from his prison cell to a hospital, where he was surgically treated for a small tear in his esophagus. Medical personnel then discovered that the cleric had a tumor on his liver. He remained in the hospital for five days until his condition improved, and was returned to prison on December 11.
According to an FBI bulletin, Rahman’s last will and testament was distributed at an al Qaeda news conference in 1998 and contained the following exhortation: “My brothers, if they [the Americans] kill me -- which they will certainly do -- hold my funeral and send my corpse to my family but do not let my blood be shed in vain. Rather extract the most violent revenge.”