Omar Abdel Rahman is one of the select group of individuals who can be traced with a mininum number of degrees of separation to most of the prominent Islamist terrorist organizations and individuals of our time. If Osama bin Laden threw a party (or a prayer-reading session), Rahman would be on the invite A-list along with a select few dozen of our contemporaries.
To tell his story is necessarily to tell the story of Islamism from the middle of the last century to the present day.
Background in Egypt
Rahman was born in Egypt in 1938, when Palestine was still entrusted to Britain by a Mandate of the League of Nations and Egypt enjoyed a sovereignty limited by British constraints. A life-long victim of diabetes, Rahman lost his eyesight at a young age - later in life he would be known somewhat irreverently by counter-terrorism experts as "the Blind Sheikh". He studied the Qur'an and the works of Sayyid Qutb and Ibn Taymiyah at al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he later became a professor and cleric.1
In 1952 General Nasser seized power in Egypt, and after a 1954 attempt on his life he began a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had been formed in 1929 by Islamist and anti-semite Hassan al-Banna, and provided a political outlet for the vast majority of Egypt's Islamic population. The secular politics of collaboration with the British played by Egyptian politicians had little appeal to most of the population, and the Brotherhood provided vital social services in the mushrooming towns. It had emerged from World War II untainted from association with British rule and in a strong social position. Although Nasser himself was no collaborator, he still represented an essentially Western style of politics. The Brotherhood was hence a threat to him and he responded appropriately.
Thus began the battle between Egypt's secular rulers and her Muslim population. In the 1970s the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence, seeking instead to transform society through preaching and charitable works. This led to the creation of a number of splinter factions who weren't quite ready to give up on violence yet, the most important of which were Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group. Rahman was by now a well-respected professor of theology and opponent of secular rule, and provided inspiration for them both. When President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of EIJ, Rahman went to jail for endorsing the action - and probably helping inspire it.
Rahman emerged during the 1980s as the leader of the Islamic Group, although he was still respected by members of EIJ. EIJ was at the time led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, later to become the spiritual head of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden is known for his organizational and financial skills, but not for his religious knowledge - Zawahiri provides this element.
Like most self-respecting jihadis, Rahman spent his time fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he enjoyed a close relationship with the founders of Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK), or the Afghan Services Bureau. This organization was founded in 1984 by Osama bin Laden and Dr. Abdullah Azzam to organize training and funding for Arab volunteers to participate in the fight against the Soviets. MAK had offices all over the world and is thought to have gathered $2 billion and 10,000 volunteers for the jihad.
It was encouraged in these actions by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, through which the CIA funnelled money and distributed it to various opposition organizations (of which MAK was just one). Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also contributed money to the struggle. Pakistan went on to support radical Islamist groups, which it continues to do to this day. The men who murdered Daniel Pearl are believed to have acted with the help of the Pakistani government, according to the most convincing interpretation.2
Rahman was obviously precluded from combat operations by his blindness, but became a close advisor to Osama bin Laden. Towards the end of the 1980s the two principles of MAK, Osama and Abdullah, were engaged in a disagreement about what to do next as the Soviet jihad drew to a close. The brigade of so-called "Arab Afghans", Arab fighters in Afghanistan, could not return home. Most of them did not want to return to a humdrum existence after their victory, and most would have been imprisoned and executed upon their return home anyway. The question for the leadership of MAK was what to do next.
Abdullah Azzam favoured the foundation of a caliphate in Afghanistan. After a base had been established firmly (which might take years - witness the Taliban), it could be used to conquer the rest of the Muslim world. However, bin Laden and Rahman had other ideas. They preferred to up shop and move on to other wars around the world, using local Muslim grievances to promote their own vision of jihad and the global caliphate. Azzam was killed by a car bomb in 1989, and leadership of MAK conveniently passed to Osama bin Laden and his followers within the organization. MAK was by now, of course, known as al-Qaeda, or 'the solid foundation'. Rahman reportedly became head of the international division, and his first assignment was in New York City.
United States of America
In July 1990, Rahman travelled to America. He received his passport from embassy officials in Khartoum, despite being on a Department of State terrorist watchlist. Some say the CIA engineered the passport as gratitude for his participation in the anti-Soviet jihad, whereas the 9/11 Report determined incompetence was the reason he was able to obtain a passport.3
Rahman's mission was to gain tighter control of al-Qaeda's financial and organizational infratructure in the United States. He also spent his time preaching at a number of mosques in the New York area, fast building up a core of dedicated supporters. He dispensed such wisdom as 'Americans are descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communism and colonialism'. He also became involved in the plotting of terrorist acts.
Rahman seized control of the Al-Kiffah 'Refugee Center' which had offices in Tucson, Arizona; Boston, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York. The previous leader, Mustafa Shalabi, was murdered on the orders of Rahman, and the latter assumed control. Al-Kiffah was in fact a recruitment center for al-Qaeda, as well as a source of finance. In 1993 it started to provide money and men for the Bosnian jihad movement, which al-Qaeda was trying to infiltrate and transform in its own image.
Then there was the domestic terrorism. First was the murder of Jewish radical Meir Kahane, who supported the deportation of all Arabs from Palestine, in New York City. This was carried out by Egyptian El Sayyid Nosair, a member of Rahman's entourage who narrowly failed to escape the scene but was never convicted of the murder, despite a room full of witnesses. Police raided Nosair's apartment and found cartons of radical literature, bomb-making guides and planned terrorist incidents, but they never bothered to translate it from Arabic into English.
Then in 1992, Ramzi Yousef entered the United States and immediately made contact with Rahman's cell. Yousef had been summoned by the Blind Sheikh and travelled with the aid of Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed (his uncle) to carry out the first WTC plot. The terrorists hoped to bring down one of the towers and kill 5,000 people, but they would have to wait years yet for such grandiose achievements. After the bombing, Rahman and his cell came under increasing scrutiny by the FBI and he was eventually arrested in late 1993 for his involvement in numerous acts of violence in the New York City area.
Rahman was not able to carry out his last plot, a plan to bring about a 'Day of Terror' in New York City which would include the synchronized bombing of the U.N. building, the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge and the Manhattan Federal Building, which housed the FBI's New York offices. His cell was rolled up before they could carry this out, with Ramzi Yousef, KSM, Siddig Ali (who was heavily involved with the Benevolance International Fund, a Saudi 'charity' which is a front for jihadi financing) and Dr. Rashid all arrested either in the United States or Pakistan.
Since Rahman's arrest and subsequent conviction in 1995, he has became a rallying point for Islamist terrorists the world over. The perpetrators of numerous attacks and kidnappings (such as a French airliner in 1996 seized by Algerian radicals and 1997 bombings in Egypt by the Islamic Group) have demanded the release of the Blind Sheikh, who thankfully will spend the rest of his days in a federal prison. What will hopefully be the last twist to his tale emerged in 2005, when his attourney was indicted for passing communications between the Sheikh and the Islamic Group, who were still seeking his guidance.
1. "The Arabic world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece translates. The accumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa'moun's time [the ninth century] is about 100,000, almost the average Spain translates in one year." (Arab Human Development Report 2002, produced by a group of Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the U.N.) Yet clearly there is no shortage of Braille editions of Qutb's extremist works.
2. See Bernard Henri-Lévy, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? trans. James X. Mitchell (Melville House Publishing, 2003). As Lévy points out, the demands of Pearl's kidnappers sounded like 'a press release from the Joint Chiefs of Staff', demanding among other things the delivery of F-16 jets to Pakistan.
3. http://www.9-11commission.gov/staff_statements/911_TerrTrav_Ch3.pdf , pp. 5 - 8