- Muslim cleric with decades of involvement with terrorist groups
- “Spiritual leader” of the late Osama bin Laden
- Mastermind of numerous terrorist plots
- Viewed the West in general, and the United States in particular, as the root of all evil in the world
- The man most responsible for introducing Islamic terrorism into America
See also: Islamic Group Sayyid Qutb Muslim Brotherhood
Osama bin Laden Abdullah Azzam Lynne Stewart
Mohammed Yousry Ahmed Abdel Sattar
Born to a peasant family in Egypt on May 3, 1938, Omar Abdel Rahman lost his eyesight when he was just 10 months old, due to childhood diabetes. He subsequently studied a Braille translation of the Koran, and by age 11 the boy had committed the entire book to memory.
In 1965 Rahman received a master's degree from Cairo University's School of Theology. In 1971 or '72 he earned a doctorate in Koranic Studies from Al-Azhar University, where he was strongly influenced by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a leading theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood.
After completing his schooling, Rahman became an imam in the Egyptian town of Fayoum, located approximately 60 miles south of Cairo. There, he promoted the takfir ideology which maintains that Muslims who in any way violate strict Islamic principles—i.e., sharia law—are apostates who deserve to be executed. Due to his constant criticisms of the secularist elements that existed in the government of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Rahman was dismissed from his Fayoum job in 1969.
Rahman subsequently found work as a religion teacher at a girls' school in the Egyptian town of Assiut. While President Nasser, stricken by a heart attack, lay dying in late September of 1970, Rahman openly exhorted the Egyptian people to refrain from praying for the “faithless” leader. Angered by his unremitting venom toward Nasser and his regime, Egyptian authorities arrested Rahman and jailed him for eight months in Citadel Prison. Rahman was released in 1971 but was barred from working again as a teacher until the summer of 1973, at which time he was appointed to the faculty of Assiut University.
Also during the 1970s, Rahman formed close ties with two of his country's most militant organizations, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group), the latter of which Rahman helped develop into a force that strove to transform Egypt into a theocratic Islamic state. Further, Rahman became known for issuing influential fatwas, or religious rulings, some of which called for violence against infidels or against Muslims who were deemed to be insufficiently devout.
Under constant police surveillance by the Egyptian government, Rahman in 1977 fled the country as an exile and settled in Saudi Arabia, where he spent the next three years teaching at a women’s college in the capital city of Riyadh. In 1980 he made a return trip to Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat had recently adopted a pro-American posture while normalizing his country's relations with Israel—two courses of action that enraged Rahman. When asked by an interviewer if it was “lawful to shed the blood of a ruler who fails to obey the laws of God,” Rahman answered affirmatively.
After Sadat was assassinated by Islamic Group members in October 1981, Rahman's followers in Assiut staged a bloody uprising that killed hundreds of policemen before the Egyptian government was able to put down the revolt. Rahman himself was arrested for allegedly having issued a fatwa that the assassins may have used as a theological justification for Sadat's murder. And indeed, Rahman would later boast that he in fact had issued such a fatwa. “Sadat was not a Muslim,” added Rahman. “He made a mockery of Islam and its principles.”
While awaiting trial on the Sadat-related charges, Rahman was incarcerated and tortured in an Egyptian prison. On October 2, 1984, he was found not guilty of having caused Sadat's death. Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy explains that Rahman, at his trial, “used a nullification defense, arguing that because Sadat failed to rule by sharia, devout Muslims had a duty to remove him.”
Notwithstanding his acquittal, Rahman was expelled from Egypt on grounds that he had helped create the climate that led to the President’s killing.
As the 1980s progressed, Rahman solidified his position as the unquestioned leader of the Islamic Group, even as he was still revered by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which at the time was led by future al Qaeda official Ayman al-Zawahiri. Over time, Rahman became a spiritual mentor to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda associates.
In the mid-1980s Rahman traveled to Afghanistan, where he contacted Abdullah Azzam, co-founder (with Osama bin Laden ) of Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK), the organization that eventually gave rise to al Qaeda in 1988. In the late '80s Rahman fought alongside bin Laden and Azzam in the Afghan war against the Soviets. After Azzam’s death in 1989, Rahman assumed control of the international jihadist arm of MAK/Al Qaeda.
When Rahman returned to Egypt in 1990, informants warned him that the government was planning to arrest him. He thus fled to Sudan, where—even though his name was on the official U.S. terrorist watchlist—he was able to procure a tourist visa from the American embassy in Khartoum. Upon his subsequent arrival in the United States, Rahman settled initially in Brooklyn and later moved to Jersey City. His objective in these places was to gain recruits and money to help advance his radical cause, and to punish America ruthlessly for having corrupted Egypt’s government with secularism. Rahman declared contemptuously that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had succeeded Anwar Sadat in 1981, “looks after Western interests” and “is the obedient dog of the West.”
Preaching at three separate New York/New Jersey-area mosques whose congregations included many Muslim immigrants from Yemen, Sudan, and Egypt, Rahman used fiery, eliminationist rhetoric to incite acts of domestic terrorism. His sermons, for example, called for “the eradication of all those who stand in the way of Islam”; declared that “Islamic holy law should be followed to the letter”; and charged that “the laws of God have been usurped by crusaders' laws,” as evidenced by the fact that “the hand of a thief is not cut off, the drinker of liquor is not whipped, the adulterer is not stoned.”
On one notable occasion, Rahman took pains to emphasize that terrorist activity was in fact a legitimate undertaking for devout Muslims. “[I]f those who have the right to have something are terrorists,” he said defiantly, “then we are terrorists. And we welcome being terrorists. And we do not deny this charge to ourselves. And the Koran makes it, terrorism, among the means to perform jihad for the sake of Allah, which is to terrorize the enemies of God … who are our enemies too.”
According to retired Joint Terrorism Task Force investigator Tom Corrigan, Abdel Rahman was the man most responsible for introducing Islamic terrorism into America: “Prior to that time—1988, ’89—terrorism for all intents and purposes didn’t exist in the United States. But Abdel Rahman’s arrival in 1990 really stoked the flames of terrorism in this country. This was a major-league ball player in what at the time was a minor-league ball park. He was … looked up to worldwide. A mentor to bin Laden, he was involved with the MAK over in Pakistan.”
With his hateful ideology and incendiary sermons, Rahman quickly drew the allegiance of a core group of devoted followers. One of them—El Sayyid Nosairv—murdered the Orthodox Zionist rabbi and former Israeli Knesset member Meir Kahane on November 5, 1990. After Kahane's death, federal investigators arrested Nosair and raided his New Jersey residence, where they discovered a number of incriminating items including a sermon wherein Rahman had urged his followers to attack “the edifices of capitalism.” Investigators also found that one of Nosair's private notebooks contained the following passage, paraphrased from a sermon Rahman had delivered in his New Jersey mosque: “... breaking and destruction 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 the endear and the buildings which gather their heads, their leaders, and without announcement for our responsibility of Muslim for what had been done.”
On November 17, 1990, the U.S. State Department, noting that Rahman's name was on the aforementioned terrorist watchlist, attempted to revoke his tourist visa. But Rahman avoided deportation by marrying an American Muslim convert. In April 1991 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) granted him permanent-resident status as a religious leader.
In August 1991, when Rahman was returning to the U.S. from a trip abroad, airport immigration officials spotted his name on the terror watchlist and initiated proceedings to rescind his permanent-residency status. The officials allowed him to re-enter the United States, however, on grounds that he was entitled to an opportunity to make his own case in court. But when Rahman failed to take any steps toward that end, his green card was revoked by U.S. authorities on March 6, 1992. Rahman's response, in turn, was to apply for political asylum in the United States. Due to a number of egregious errors by immigration authorities, he succeeded in avoiding deportation.
Convinced that Rahman was involved in inspiring and galvanizing various Islamic terror plots, the FBI infiltrated his circle-of-influence with an informant named Emad Salem, who made hundreds of secret tapes that showed Rahman discussing potential bombing targets with his conspirators. One tape showed four of Rahman's accomplices mixing diesel oil and fertilizer to create bombs in a Queens, New York garage.
In the summer of 1993, Rahman and nine co-conspirators were charged with engaging in “seditious conspiracy” and plotting a “war of urban terrorism” against the United States. (Click here to see the indictment.)
- Rahman personally was charged with 50 separate offenses. For one, he was accused of having played a role in the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people and injured over 1,000. Rahman's role in the bombing was indirect: He had issued a fatwa declaring such an attack justifiable under Islamic law, similar to what he had done prior to Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981. A number of the terrorists who carried out the bombing were members of a New York-area terror cell that Rahman himself had established.
- Rahman was also charged with masterminding an unrealized plot to bomb major landmarks and assassinate major individuals in and around New York City. Most notably, five bombs were intended 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. Additional targets included the FBI’s lower Manhattan headquarters and a number of U.S. armories.
On October 1, 1995, Rahman was convicted on 48 of the 50 charges against him. In addition to the charges cited above, he was also convicted of plotting to assassinate then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1993, and of urging his followers to bomb American military installations in a manner similar to what Islamic terrorists had done to the U.S. Army barracks in Lebanon in 1983.
Rahman was sentenced for his crimes on January 17, 1996. Just before the presiding judge read his sentence, Rahman delivered a long, ardent speech in Arabic, translated by an interpreter, in which he said:
"… Allah almighty says never will the Jews nor the Christians be pleased with you, God's blessings and peace be upon you, till you follow the religion.... I am honored to join those who are in jail for God's cause, with the martyrs and the good.... And I say, and I am not exaggerating when I say I am sent in jail as a Muslim.... I will not be terrorized by jail nor by execution, as long as that is in the service of Islam.... I say the truth even when it is very bitter.... And I will speak what the Koran taught me to say … since the creation of America it is against the Muslims.... America has spent all its efforts to get the Muslims and and to hurt them and to create the most calamitous amongst them, and our case here is the most modern or the latest of American insults towards Islam. It's worse and … it is not only an attack on Muslims alone, but it is an aggression against the words of God and all the great inspirations of God. And it is putting Islam on trial and disgracing it.... I have not done anything and I have not committed any crime, except having taught people about Islam. I told them about God's orders so that they may practice it, and the things that they should avoid so that they may avoid them. I have taught people in mosques, in schools, and in universities, what God said and what the messenger said. That is my only profession … whereas in the court they have listened to my speeches and my lessons, and these words are not my own words, but these are the words of Islam and the verses of the holy Koran. And when the American government produces or puts forward my speeches and my Muslim lessons as evidence in this case, in so doing it is actually putting Islam on trial, and it is putting the Koran on trial... If America is capable of killing people, it cannot kill Islam. And if it tried to do that, God will actually make it disappear … because God has guaranteed the continuation of Islam and the safeguarding of the Koran.... The judge refused us the right to bring an expert in Islam to testify that that is what Islam says, what the Koran has said, what the prophet has said.... Had they brought in an expert in Islam, that expert would have said, he would have said bless you Abdel Rahman, may God bless you, you have said what Islam has ordered us to say, and you have asked people to follow what the Koran said. And you have not changed or added what thousands of Muslim clerics have said.... And even with all these wars that America is declaring on Islam, the truth, whether America likes it or not, the future is for Islam.... I am being tried because of my beliefs and because I defend Islam..."
Then, over the objections of his defense attorney Lynne Stewart, Rahman was sentenced to life-in-prison plus 65 years, with no possibility of parole.
On May 26, 1998, al Qaeda spokesmen hosted a press conference where Rahman’s last will and testament was distributed. It 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.”
The al Qaeda press conference also featured the reading of a note containing a fatwa that had been smuggled out of Rahman’s jail cell in the United States. It read: “A fatwa of the captive Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman … To all Muslims everywhere: Destroy their countries. Tear them to pieces. Destroy their economies, burn their corporations, destroy their businesses, sink their ships, and bring down their airplanes. Kill them in the sea, on land, and in the air. Your brother Abdel Rahman, from inside American prisons.”
Eleven weeks later, two U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed by al Qaeda terrorists, killing 224 people. And three years after that, Osama bin Laden would cite this very same Rahman fatwa as a sharia-based justification for the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In 1999 Rahman appealed his life sentence, without success. The court summarized Rahman's claim as follows: “According to his speeches and writings, Rahman perceives the United States as the primary oppressor of Muslims worldwide, active in assisting Israel to gain power in the Middle East, and largely under the control of the Jewish lobby. Rahman also considers the secular Egyptian government of Mubarak to be an oppressor because it has abided Jewish migration to Israel while seeking to decrease Muslim births. Holding these views, Rahman believes that jihad against Egypt and the United States is mandated by the Qur'an. n1 Formation of a jihad army made up of small 'divisions' and 'battalions' to carry out this jihad was therefore necessary, according to Rahman, in order to beat back these oppressors of Islam including the United States.”
Concerned that Rahman might attempt to issue fatwas and to direct Islamic Group terrorist activities from his prison cell, federal authorities required the Sheikh's attorney, Lynne Stewart, to agree to a Special Administrative Measure (SAM) stipulating that if she wished to visit her client in the penitentiary, she: (a) could only talk to him about legal matters, and (b) was barred from conveying messages from Rahman to anyone in the outside world, including his family, friends and the media. The SAM allowed an Arabic translator, Mohammed Yousry, to accompany Stewart on her visits to the Sheikh.
Throughout 2000, FBI agents, working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), secretly videotaped Stewart's prison visits with Rahman; moreover, they wiretapped telephone conversations between the two. These surveillance measures showed that Stewart and Yousry repeatedly helped Rahman deliver messages in Arabic to a Staten Island-based postal worker named Ahmed Abdel Sattar, who in turn—via faxes and telephone conversations—passed those communiques along to Islamic Group representatives in the Middle East.
Then, in mid-June of 2000, Stewart, in direct violation of the SAM, released to the international media a statement by Rahman indicating that he was “withdrawing his support for the cease-fire that currently exists.” That statement signaled Islamic Group members that they should resume their violence against the Egyptian government and end a cease-fire that had been in effect since 1998.
Also from his prison cell, Rahman issued a fatwa calling 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 his legal advisers. Lynne Stewart’s role in passing along this message is what ultimately led to her arrest by federal agents in April 2002.
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 Sheikh 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 then returned to prison on December 11.
Rahman remained incarcerated until February 18, 2017, when he died of complications from diabetes and coronary artery disease.