Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Islamic cleric whose fulminating sermons inspired violent fundamentalist movements in Egypt and, an American court found, a 1993 plot for a bombing rampage in New York, died on Saturday at a federal prison near Raleigh, N.C., where he was serving a life sentence. He was 78.
Greg Norton, a spokesman for the prison, the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, confirmed the death, saying the cause was complications of diabetes and coronary artery disease.
Born to a humble merchant in a Nile Delta village and blind from infancy, Mr. Abdel Rahman became one of the most influential and fearsome theologians of the Islamist fundamentalism that swept the Middle East in recent decades.
On Oct. 1, 1995, Mr. Abdel Rahman was convicted, along with nine other defendants, on sedition charges in Federal District Court in Manhattan. He was found guilty of guiding a conspiracy to wage “a war of urban terrorism,” with the ultimate aim of carrying out a day of bombings against the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, the United Nations and the Manhattan headquarters of the F.B.I.
Those bombings never happened, but the intent of the conspiracy, prosecutors said, was to destroy New York landmarks, kill hundreds of people and force the United States to abandon its support for Israel and Egypt.
Prosecutors also asserted that Mr. Rahman was linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people.
In Mr. Abdel Rahman’s trial, prosecutors described the World Trade Center attack as part of a broader conspiracy involving the blind cleric. They depicted the bombing as part of a plot that included the killing of a militant rabbi in 1990 and the conspiracy to blow up New York landmarks.
Before coming to the United States, Mr. Abdel Rahman was put on trial in Egypt. In 1980, according to courtroom testimony there, he gave a blessing to a cell of militant Islamists, emboldening them to assassinate President Anwar el-Sadat during a military parade on Oct. 6, 1981, in Cairo.
Mr. Abdel Rahman faced trial twice in Egypt for instigating Mr. Sadat’s assassination and for political disturbances that erupted at the time. Twice, in 1982 and 1984, he was acquitted.
In learned but vitriolic jeremiads, Mr. Abdel Rahman denounced Egypt’s secularist leaders as corrupt pharaohs and infidels. He proclaimed that faithful Muslims had a duty to wage jihad, or holy war, to install a government in Egypt that would obey the strictest Islamic laws. He denounced what he saw as the corrosive effect on Islam of the materialistic and hypersexualized West.
In 1990, as he fled from Egypt, Mr. Abdel Rahman moved to the United States, bringing his anti-American preaching and his campaign against the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City.
Mr. Abdel Rahman, who was known as the blind sheikh, spent years in the most severe solitary confinement, barred from communicating with his followers, praying with other prisoners or even listening to Arabic radio. Failing blood circulation had killed the sensation in his fingertips, making it impossible for him to read his Braille Islamic texts.
Mr. Abdel Rahman was born on May 3, 1938, in a small village in the Nile Delta. An infection blinded him at 10 months. When he became an adult, his right eye remained open but clouded while his left eye stayed closed.
Sent to a school for the blind, he excelled, learning Braille and memorizing the Quran by the time he was 11. He trained to be an Islamic scholar, completing his doctoral degree in 1973 at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s premier center of Islamic learning.
Mr. Abdel Rahman first antagonized the Egyptian authorities in 1970 when he barred the faithful in a mosque where he was presiding, in the town Fayoum, from praying after the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a secularist. He was imprisoned for several months.
Soon he began to espouse a doctrine, rooted in 14th-century Quranic interpretation, holding that devout Muslims were obliged to kill rulers who did not follow Islamic law. Saad Hasaballah, a lawyer who represented Mr. Abdel Rahman in the Sadat assassination trials, said the sheikh told the Islamist army officers involved in the plot that a secular leader like Mr. Sadat deserved death — although he never mentioned the president by name.
In 1984, Egypt’s highest court found that Mr. Abdel Rahman had been tortured while in prison during the trials. Years later, at a news conference in New Jersey, he enumerated 12 methods of torture he said jailers had used.
During the 1980s, Mr. Abdel Rahman emerged as the imam of the Islamic Group, a student organization that grew to include thousands of members. Over more than a decade, the group carried out terrorist attacks, including many on tourist sites, killing foreigners and paralyzing Egypt’s tourism industry. The government responded fiercely, imprisoning thousands of the group’s followers.
Mr. Abdel Rahman also traveled that decade to Afghanistan and Pakistan, giving religious teachings to the Islamist fighters battling the Soviet occupation. He brought two of his sons, Ahmed and Muhammad, still teenagers, to Afghanistan to join the jihad. His preaching there brought him in contact with Osama bin Laden.
In 1989, Mr. Abdel Rahman was put on trial again in Egypt, charged with instigating an antigovernment riot in Fayoum. Placed under house arrest, he managed to escape. On July 18, 1990, he traveled to New York, carrying a visa granted by the United States consulate in Sudan. Since his name had appeared on a State Department terrorism watch list, the visa prompted outrage in Congress and an investigation of the immigration agency. Still, Mr. Abdel Rahman did little to mute his sermons when he took up preaching in Brooklyn and Jersey City.
After several of the bomb plot suspects were arrested in the act of mixing a brew of explosives, Mr. Abdel Rahman surrendered to federal authorities on July 2, 1993.
His trial hinged on transcripts of secretly recorded meetings with an F.B.I. informant, Emad Salem. He was represented by the civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, who was convicted in 2004 of smuggling messages from the imprisoned sheikh to his followers in Egypt. She was granted compassionate release from federal prison three years ago after being found to have breast cancer.
In court, Mr. Abdel Rahman maintained his innocence. At his January 1996 sentencing, he called the trial “an attack on the words of God” and said the United States, “an enemy of Islam,” was seeking to give him “a slow death.”
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (Arabic: عمر عبد الرحمن, ‘Umar ‘Abdu r-Raḥman; 3 May 1938 – 18 February 2017), commonly known in the United States as "The Blind Sheikh", was a blind Egyptian Muslim leader who served a life sentence at the Federal Medical Center, Butner in Butner, North Carolina, United States. Formerly a resident of New York City, Abdel-Rahman and nine others were convicted of seditious conspiracy, which requires only that a crime be planned, not that it necessarily be attempted. His prosecution grew out of investigations of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Abdel-Rahman was accused of being the leader of Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya (also known as "The Islamic Group"), a militant Islamist movement in Egypt that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Egyptian governments. The group was responsible for many acts of violence, including the November 1997 Luxor massacre, in which 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians were killed.
Abdel-Rahman was born in the city of al-Gamalia, Dakahlia Governorate, Egypt, on 3 May 1938. He lost his eyesight when he was 10 months old. He studied a Braille version of the Qur'an as a child, had it memorized by age 11 and was sent to an Islamic boarding school. He developed an interest in the works of the Islamic radical reformists Ibn Taymiyah and Sayyid Qutb. He studied at Cairo University's School of Theology and later earned a Doctorate in Tafsir (quranic interpretation) from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Soon after leaving university, Abdel-Rahman began preaching against the secular regime of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Abdel-Rahman became one of the most prominent and outspoken Muslim clerics to denounce Egypt’s secularism.
Omar Abdel-Rahman had two wives, who bore him 10 children: Aisha Hassan Gouda (7 sons), and Aisha Zohdi (3 children). His sons include Abdullah, Ahmed, Mohammed and Asim. Ahmed was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan in 2011. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003. He was later extradited to Egypt and released in 2010. Asim was a close associate of Osama bin Laden following the September 11th attacks.
During the 1970s, Abdel-Rahman developed close ties with two of Egypt’s most militant organizations, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya ("The Islamic Group"). By the 1980s, he had emerged as the leader of Al-jama'a al-Islamiyya, although he was still revered by followers of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which at the time was being led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, later to become an Al-Qaeda principal. Abdel-Rahman spent three years in Egyptian jails while awaiting trial on charges of issuing a fatwa resulting in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat by Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Although Abdel-Rahman was not convicted of conspiracy in the Sadat assassination, he was expelled from Egypt following his acquittal. He made his way to Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, where he contacted his former professor, Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) along with Osama bin Laden. Abdel-Rahman built a strong rapport with bin Laden during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and, following Azzam’s murder in 1989, he assumed control of the international jihadist arm of MAK/Al Qaeda.
In July 1990, Abdel-Rahman traveled to New York City to gain control of MAK’s financial and organizational infrastructure in the United States.
Abdel-Rahman was issued a tourist visa to visit the United States by the consul of the United States Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, despite his name being listed on a U.S. State Department terrorist watch list. Abdel-Rahman entered the United States in July 1990 via Saudi Arabia, Peshawar, and Sudan. The State Department revoked his tourist visa on 17 November. Despite this, in April 1991, he obtained a green card from the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Newark, New Jersey. After leaving the U.S. to go on an overseas trip, he tried to re-enter the U.S. in August 1991. At that point, U.S. officials recognized that he was on the lookout list, and began the procedure to revoke his permanent resident status. The U.S. government still allowed him to enter the country, as he had the right to appeal the decision to revoke his residency status. Abdel-Rahman failed to appeal the decision, and on 6 March 1992, the U.S. government revoked his green card. He then requested political asylum. A hearing on that matter was held on 20 January 1993. It was later revealed that Abdel-Rahman was given most of his visa approvals by the CIA. Egyptian officials have testified that the CIA was actively assisting him in entering the US.
Abdel-Rahman traveled widely in the United States and Canada. Despite U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Abdel-Rahman was deeply anti-American, and spoke out against the country. He issued a fatwa in the US that declared it lawful to rob banks and kill Jews in the US. His sermons condemned Americans as the "descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists". He called on Muslims to assail the West, "cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land".
Preaching at three mosques in the New York City area, Abdel-Rahman was soon surrounded by a core group of devoted followers that included persons who would soon be responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which took place five weeks into the Bill Clinton administration. One of Abdel-Rahman's followers, El Sayyid Nosair, was linked to the 1990 Manhattan assassination of Israeli nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League.
Steven Emerson's 1994 television documentary Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America contains a video of Abdel-Rahman in Detroit, calling for jihad against the "infidel".
In 1993, Egypt suffered a spate of terrorist attacks. In that year, over 1,100 people in Egypt were either killed or wounded due to terrorist attack. By comparison, the number for the prior year was 322. According to The New York Times, these attacks had "shaken the Egyptian Government".
Abdel-Rahman was the spiritual leader of Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, which included the terrorists who were conducting these attacks. At that time, he was recording his sermons in Brooklyn on cassette tapes and sending them to Egypt. These tapes were duplicated and given to tens of thousands of followers in Cairo. In these tapes, Abdel-Rahman called for the murder of infidels, for the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, and for Egypt to become a pure Islamic state.
Mamdouh Beltagui, the head of the state information service in Egypt, told The New York Times in the early 1990s, "Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman uses New York as a base. He raises funds and sends money back to Egypt with couriers. He passes on messages to his followers, giving orders about what they should do next and who they should target. We do not understand why the U.S. authorities have allowed him to enter the country."
The New York Times compared him to the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1979, Khomeini was in Paris when he helped to oust the Shah of Iran. He too sent recordings of his sermons to his countrymen.
After the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to investigate Abdel-Rahman and his followers more closely. An Egyptian informant wearing a listening device for the FBI managed to record Abdel-Rahman saying he preferred attacks be concentrated on US military targets, but also stating acts of violence against civilian targets were not illicit. The most startling plan, the government charged, was to set off five bombs in 10 minutes, blowing up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and a federal building housing the FBI. Government prosecutors showed videotapes of the defendants mixing bomb ingredients in a garage before their arrest in 1993. Abdel-Rahman was arrested on 24 June 1993, along with nine of his followers. On 1 October 1995, he was convicted of seditious conspiracy, solicitation to murder Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, conspiracy to murder President Mubarak, solicitation to attack a U.S. military installation, and conspiracy to conduct bombings; in 1996 he was sentenced to life in solitary confinement without parole.
Abdel-Rahman began serving his life sentence at the FMC Rochester in Minnesota. After the September 11 attacks, he was transferred to the FMC Butner in North Carolina. He died there on 18 February 2017 at the age of 78 due to complications from diabetes and coronary arterial disease.
In a speech to supporters in Cairo's Tahrir Square on 30 June 2012, Mohamed Morsi briefly mentioned that he would work to free Omar Abdel-Rahman, along with other Egyptians who were arrested during the revolution. A Brotherhood spokesperson later said that the extradition was for humanitarian reasons and that Morsi didn't intend to overturn Abdel-Rahman's criminal convictions.
During the 2013 In Aménas hostage crisis, a Mauritanian news organization reported that the kidnappers had offered to swap American hostages in Algeria for the release of Abdel-Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated that the United States would not negotiate with the terrorists.
Abdel-Rahman’s imprisonment became a rallying point for Islamic militants around the world, including Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden [d.2011]. In 1997, members of his group Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya conducted two attacks against European visitors to Egypt, including the massacre of 58 tourists at Deir el-Bahri in Luxor. In addition to killing women and children, the attackers mutilated a number of bodies and distributed leaflets throughout the scene demanding Abdel-Rahman’s release.
In 2005, members of Abdel-Rahman’s legal team, including lawyer Lynne Stewart, were convicted of facilitating communication between Abdel-Rahman and members of the terrorist organization Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya in Egypt. They received long federal prison sentences, based on their violated obligation to keep Abdel-Rahman incommunicado while providing him legal counsel.