Before bin Laden, there was the blind sheik.
A generation ago, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman stood as the embodiment of Islamist terrorism: a bearded, religious extremist with a trademark red-and-white cap and dark sun glasses who helped orchestrate the first bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993, and plotted several unrealized attacks against other New York landmarks.
Two decades of imprisonment in high-security detention centers in the United States have diminished his public profile. But the Egyptian cleric is gaining notoriety among a new generation of Muslim holy warriors, and he has become a cause célèbre for Islamist political leaders who came to power during the Arab Spring.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi came into office with a pledge to press the case with the United States for Abdel Rahman’s release.
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In October, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video in which he called on Egyptians to kidnap Americans to exchange for the blind sheik.
And Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of a jihadist brigade that attacked American and European oil workers this month at a natural-gas facility in Algeria, placed Abdel Rahman’s liberty on his list of political demands.
“He was the godfather of all Islamic movements,” said Zawahiri’s younger brother, Mohamed, who last year was released from prison in Egypt. “Maybe if he was not going through such injustice, 9/11 would not have happened. (The sheik’s imprisonment) was one of the reasons that the people felt so strongly about the American offenses against the Islamic people.”
The 74-year-old spiritual leader of the extremist Gama’a Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, Abdel Rahman has been a revered figure in Islamic extremist circles since the early 1980s, when he was charged, but acquitted, after being accused of an alleged role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.
Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak — who kept many Islamists imprisoned or under close surveillance during his 30-year rule — calls for Abdel Rahman’s release have grown.
The sheik’s family has led protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo since 2011, calling for him to be let go. Appeals for his release became so persistent that the U.S. Justice Department released a statement denying Abdel Rahman’s freedom was up for negotiation.
Branded a political outlaw in his homeland, Abdel Rahman traveled to the United States in 1990, where the blind cleric preached at mosques in Brooklyn and New Jersey and, according to federal prosecutors, plotted the killing of hundreds of Americans.
He was convicted in October 1995 on charges of conspiring to “levy a war of urban terrorism against the United States,” including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, and a plan to blow up the United Nations headquarters and other New York landmarks. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
In 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden issued a videotaped call for the sheik’s release, according to Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who described Abdel Rahman as the “spiritual guide to 9/11.” Bergen cited a religious edict the blind sheik wrote from his prison cell, calling on Muslims to strike out against their enemies and “kill them in the sea, on land, and in the air.”
Abdel Rahman’s family maintains he is innocent and that he should be released, at least out of “mercy” because of his age and health. The cleric suffers from severe diabetes, and uses a wheelchair, according to his son Abdallah.
Communications are restricted to 15-minute telephone calls with his family every five to 10 days. Beyond that, Abdallah said his father is not permitted contact with the outside world, out of fears that he would urge his followers to commit violence.
“He has fallen off the map here because he has been in jail for such a long time and has no means of communicating with his followers,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Palestine Task Force.
Ibish said that though Abdel Rahman is not a widely popular figure in Egypt, he is viewed by Salafists as “a bona fide religious and political figure who was convicted on very scant grounds, at least in their view.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, Ibish said, would not consider Abdel Rahman one of their own, but they find it politically useful to champion his cause to cover their “right flank.”
Abdel Rahman’s name, meanwhile, has been invoked by a new generation of jihadists, including armed militants who offered to trade American hostages at the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria for him. Such a deal was never explored by Algeria, which launched an armed raid, leading to the death of at least 23 hostages and 32 of their captors.
A shadowy Libyan militant group calling itself the Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman Brigade claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on western targets in Libya last year, including the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. While responsibility for that attack has never been firmly established, Abdel Rahman’s son Abdallah claimed that the killers “were acting in the name of Sheik Omar Adbel Rahman.”
Abdallah insists that his family does not condone violence, but he said that the United States is responsible for turning his father into a symbol of violent resistance.
“All those actions did not come from nothing, for it was America that pushed the Muslim youth to revolt,” Abdallah said. “America is using force, and what is taken by force must be returned by force.”