Omar Abdel Rahman, the notorious “Blind Sheikh” who died on Friday night while serving his life sentence in federal prison, was never shy about being a terrorist. As he put it:
What kind of name is this? Why are we afraid of it? Why do we fear the word terrorist? If the terrorist is the person who defends his right, so we are terrorists. And if the terrorist is the one who struggles for the sake of God, then we are terrorists. We . . . have been ordered with terrorism because we must prepare what power we can to terrorize the enemy of Allah and your enemy. The Koran says “to strike terror.” Therefore, we don’t fear to be described with “terrorism.” . . . They may say, “He is a terrorist, he uses violence, he uses force.” Let them say that. We are ordered to prepare whatever we can of power to terrorize the enemies of Islam.
Before there was an al-Qaeda or an ISIS, there was the Blind Sheikh, known to his worldwide following as “the emir of jihad.” And he bears much of the responsibility — he would think of it as the credit — for what followed him. Indeed, bin Laden credited Sheikh Abdel Rahman with the fatwa (the sharia-law edict) that approved the 9/11 jihadist attacks in which nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered. Abdel Rahman had indeed issued such a fatwa:
Muslims everywhere to dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, . . . shoot down their planes, [and] kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.
Having been the lead prosecutor in the trial at which he was convicted, I find that barely a day goes by that I don’t ruefully think about this. For all the praise we received for a job well done — and I am immensely proud of the work we did — we only managed to imprison him. We did not stop him.
Abdel Rahman was the central character in a memoir I wrote about the case nearly a decade ago, Willful Blindness. The title has become something of catch phrase describing the wayward American approach to counterterrorism. I meant it as something more than that — a contrast: the steely determination that underlay Abdel Rahman’s clarity of purpose that the world be ruled by Islamic law, versus our own conscious avoidance of the sharia-supremacist ideology that drives the jihadist threat, and diffidence about whether our own liberty culture is worth defending.
He was raised in the tiny Nile Delta town of al-Gamalia, where he lost his sight to juvenile diabetes in 1942, at the age of four. The sickly boy was a prodigy, memorizing the Koran at an early age and developing into a renowned scholar of Islamic jurisprudence — the discipline in which he earned a doctorate, with distinction, at storied al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning since the tenth century. Abdel Rahman was deeply influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, the 14th-century docent who had come of age in a soul-searching time for Islamic fundamentalism: after invading Mongols routed the Abbasid Caliphate, laying Baghdad to waste. Taymiyyah championed a return to basics: a literalist interpretation of scripture and the notion that the original Islamic communities forged by the prophet Mohammed were the ideal to which all humanity must aspire.
Abdel Rahman was also affected by contemporary followers of Taymiyyah. Interestingly, one was the Shiite jihadist icon, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Notwithstanding their theological differences, Abdel Rahman perceived in Khomeini the possibilities of Islamic revolution and the exploitation of what he saw as American weakness — particularly by Hezbollah, Khomeini’s forward jihadist militia that, among other atrocities, killed 241 U.S. Marines in their Beirut barracks in 1983. “If Muslim battalions were to do five or six operations to the Americans in surprise attacks like the one that was done against them in Lebanon,” the Blind Sheikh urged, “the Americans would have exited [the Persian Gulf] and gathered their armies and gone back . . . to their country.” It was a recruitment speech he delivered hundreds of times.
Abdel Rahman also revered Sayyid Qutb, his fellow Egyptian and a Muslim Brotherhood hero long imprisoned and eventually executed by the hated Nasser regime. From the premise of Taymiyyah’s teaching, and building on the foundation laid by Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Bannah, Qutb taught that Islam is “a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone”; that the “freedom” God offers is submission to His law, sharia; and that supplanting man’s dominion with Allah’s could never be achieved by “preaching” alone — it would require jihad “to wipe out tyranny” and impose this Orwellian conception of “freedom” on mankind.
Echoing Ibn Taymiyyah, Qutb’s jihad targeted not only declared non-believers but also those rulers who professed to be Muslim but did not adhere to sharia. Qutb also infused his teaching with visceral anti-Semitism, portraying the Jew as the instantiation of all that is anti-Islamic and treacherous. Abdel Rahman drank deeply from this noxious well.
The Blind Sheikh completed his master’s degree in Cairo in 1967, in the aftermath of Qutb’s execution and what Muslims still see as the humiliation of the Six-Day War. By the time he earned his doctorate in 1971, he already had a following of young budding jihadists. By 1973, the firebrand “cleric” (he is better thought of as a sharia jurist) was the emir of a jihadist organization, Gama’at al-Islamia (the Islamic Group). Essentially, it was a spinoff of the Brotherhood, comprised of young Muslims who had been lured into the Brotherhood’s sharia-supremacist ideology but were impatient with the Brotherhood’s methodical pace, which — in their view – too often failed to live up to the militant violence of its rhetoric, and too often played a double game of collusion with the secular regime Muslims were obliged to overthrow.
Abdel Rahman became most notorious for issuing the fatwa relied upon by the jihadists who murdered Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat at a military parade in 1981 — for the unforgivable offense of making peace with Israel. The Blind Sheikh was acquitted at his Egyptian trial when he defended himself with a stirring recitation of Islamic-law principles, exceedingly effective before a hypocritical authoritarian regime that nominally claims fidelity to sharia but does not actually enforce it. As he argued to the court, Allah’s commands hold that society must be governed by sharia; if it is not, it becomes the individual duty of every Muslim to perform jihad against the regime until it either is overthrown or enforces God’s law. This self-evident truth, he elaborated, required no scholarly fatwa. Thus, Sadat’s slayers were performing a sacred duty, and it was pointless to quibble over whether it had been authorized by him or by any man; it was dictated by the Koran.
Abdel Rahman became most notorious for issuing the fatwa relied upon by the jihadists who murdered Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat at a military parade in 1981 — for the unforgivable offense of making peace with Israel.
It was the same defense the Blind Sheikh would later attempt to posit at his American trial. Suffice it to say that it did not have the same traction with a jury of New Yorkers sitting in a courthouse six blocks from the World Trade Center.
Though acquitted in Egypt, Abdel Rahman delighted in claiming credit for Sadat’s murder. Years later, safely out of Egypt and stoking new recruits, he would reflect that, of the “many jihad operations” carried out by his Islamic Group, the “most famous” one was “killing . . . the atheist, the oppressor and the profligate, . . . Anwar Al-Sadat.” But what about the result, someone asked. Hadn’t getting rid of Sadat only given Muslims Mubarak, who was worse?
Abdel Rahman would hear none of it. God “ordered us to eliminate” Sadat, he insisted, “even if this had to be done by killing him[,]” and even though Mubarak proved to be worse. Mubarak — “the third traitor, backstabber who became the loyal dog to America, . . . and was at the forefront of the treachery caravan to give to Israel and then America everything” — would, the Blind Sheikh assured, be dealt with in “another operation.”
While Abdel Rahman never managed to have Hosni Mubarak killed, he spent many years trying — and we ultimately convicted him on a count of conspiracy to murder the then-president of Egypt (one plan included trying to assassinate him near the U.N. in the early 1990s). Abdel Rahman could not fail to be pleased by Mubarak’s overthrow and replacement, in 2011, by a Muslim Brotherhood government whose platform included demanding that the United States transfer their beloved Blind Sheikh back home — a hope that was dashed when the Brotherhood government was ousted.
By the time he settled in the United States in late 1990, Abdel Rahman was a globally recognized . . . menace. He was deeply involved in recruiting and fundraising for the “Arab-Afghan” contingent that joined the anti-Soviet jihad (and to this day regards its service to Allah as responsible for the demise of the Soviet empire). His network of associates included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan warlord and former prime minister to whom much of the funding of the Arab fighters was channeled; Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi; and such founding figures of al-Qaeda as Ayman al-Zawahiri (Abdel Rahman’s Egyptian contemporary and sometime rival, who is now the international terror network’s leader) and Abdullah Azzam, the charismatic Palestinian who, like Abdel Rahman, graduated with a doctorate from al-Azhar and taught for a time in Saudi Arabia — where both Azzam and Abdel Rahman profoundly influenced a young student named Osama bin Laden.
Even before he settled in the New York metropolitan area (thanks to a tragicomedy of errors by American immigration authorities, who failed to notice he was on terrorism watch lists), the Blind Sheikh had an ardent following. His acolytes included Sayyid Nosair, Mohamed Salameh, Mahmud Abuhalima, and Nidal Ayyad — to name just a few. They used mosques and Islamic community centers as hubs for recruitment, fundraising, and paramilitary training — including shooting sessions in Calverton, Long Island, and drills involving explosives and close combat in remote areas of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. They would report on their activities in overseas phone calls to Abdel Rahman, which were recorded and used to draw young Muslims to the cause.
In 1990, Nosair murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane, the controversial founder of the Jewish Defense League, at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. On February 26, 1993, Salameh, Abuhalima, and Ayyad, along with Ramzi Yousef, carried out the bombing of the World Trade Center — a plot long in the making, much of which was planned during visits to Nosair at Attica state prison in New York.
By then, for well over a year, Abdel Rahman had been urging jihad against the United States from within the United States. America, he declared, was “the head of the snake,” the world’s leading enemy of Islam. A notebook kept by Nosair and recovered after the Kahane murder contained such teachings as this:
Before announcing the establishing of the state of Abraham in our holy land . . . to break and to destroy the morale of the enemies of Allah. (And this is by means of destroying) (exploding) the structure of their civilized pillars. Such as the touristic infrastructure which they are proud of and their high world buildings which they are proud of and their statues which they endear and the buildings in which gather their heads (their leaders).
In the run-up to the bombing, Abdel Rahman was in constant touch with the plotters. Just a few weeks before the explosion that killed six adults (including a pregnant woman) and caused billions of dollars in damage, he spoke at a jihadist conference, thundering that “God has obliged us to perform jihad,” and thus that “the battalions of Islam and its divisions must be in a state of continuous readiness to hit their enemies with strength and power.” Reminding the crowd that “the enemies at the foremost of the work against Islam are America and its allies,” he continued with one of his favorite themes:
If those who have the right [to have something] are terrorists then we are terrorists. And we welcome being terrorists. And we do not deny this charge to ourselves. And the Koran makes it among the means to perform jihad for the sake of Allah, which is to terrorize the enemies of God and our enemies too. . . . Then we must be terrorists and we must terrorize the enemies of Islam and frighten them and disturb them and shake the earth under their feet.
In the summer of 1993, we arrested the Blind Sheikh and eleven of his followers as they conspired to carry out an even more ambitious plot against New York City landmarks: simultaneous bombing of the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the U.N. complex. Other potential targets under consideration were American military installations — which Abdel Rahman quite explicitly ordered attacks against — and the FBI’s headquarters in lower Manhattan. In October 1995, after a nine-month trial, they were convicted of conspiring to levy a terrorist war against the United States, including the WTC bombing, as well as the additional bombing plots and plans for various political assassinations. The presiding judge, Michael B. Mukasey — a peerless jurist who later served as U.S. attorney general in the Bush administration — sentenced the Blind Sheikh to life imprisonment.
As I said, we imprisoned him, but we failed to put an end to his reign of terror. Besides the fatwa that paved the way for 9/11, Abdel Rahman issued guidance to his Egyptian terrorist organization to end a truce with the Mubarak government. Lynne Stewart, the radical lawyer who had represented him at the trial, was eventually convicted of material support to terrorism for transmitting his directives from jail.
As I recounted in 2012, when the Egyptian press was reporting that the Obama administration was considering transferring Abdel Rahman back to Egypt:
In 1997, Gama’at al-Islamia threatened to “target . . . all of those Americans who participated in subjecting [Abdel Rahman’s] life to danger” — “every American official, starting with the American president [down] to the despicable jailer.” The organization promised to do “everything in its power” to obtain his release. Six months later, Gama’at jihadists set upon 58 foreign tourists and several police officers at an archeological site in Luxor, Egypt, brutally shooting and slicing them to death. The terrorists left behind leaflets — including in the mutilated torso of one victim — demanding that the Blind Sheikh be freed.
Gama’at subsequently issued a statement warning that its forcible struggle against the Egyptian regime would proceed unless Mubarak met its three demands: the implementation of sharia, the cessation of diplomatic relations with Israel, and “the return of our Sheikh and emir to his land.” In March 2000, terrorists associated with the Abu Sayyaf group kidnapped a number of tourists in the Philippines and threatened to behead them if Abdel Rahman and two other convicted terrorists were not freed. Authorities later recovered two decapitated bodies (four other hostages were never accounted for).
On September 21, 2000, only three weeks before al-Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole [killing 17 members of the U.S. Navy], al-Jazeera televised a “Convention to Support the Honorable Omar Abdel Rahman.” Front and center were Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (then bin Laden’s deputy, now his successor as emir of al-Qaeda). They warned that unless Sheikh Abdel Rahman was freed, jihadist attacks against the United States would be stepped up. At the same event, Mohammed Abdel Rahman, an al-Qaeda operative who is one of the sheikh’s sons, exhorted the crowd to “avenge your Sheikh” and “go to the spilling of blood.”
Omar Abdel Rahman was physically incapable of doing anything that would be useful to a terrorist organization: He couldn’t build a bomb, hijack a plane, or carry out an assassination. The only thing he could do for a terrorist organization was lead it. His life is a testament to the centrality of sharia-supremacist ideology to modern jihadism and to the broader Islamist movement in which it thrives. His death reminds us why we must fight everything he represented.