Editor's Note: This analysis was originally published in 2006 following an FBI warning that the failing health of Omar Ali Ahmed Abdul-Rahman could spark attacks. Abdul-Rahman instead survived for over a decade, passing away Feb. 18, 2017.
A recent FBI warning to U.S. law enforcement agencies regarding ailing "Blind Sheikh" Omar Ali Ahmed Abdul-Rahman has sparked a media debate over Rahman's importance in the global jihadist movement — and over the consequences of his inevitable death while in U.S. custody. The bureau itself warned that Rahman's death could generate reprisal attacks against the United States. Some media reports expanded on the FBI warning, claiming Rahman's death would provide inspiration for a global wave of terrorist attacks against the United States. Others, however, called Rahman an insignificant figure and said he is connected only to a largely defunct Egyptian militant group.
All of these assessments most likely are off the mark. Rahman continues to be an important figure in the worldwide jihadist movement. An examination of his background and of his position on the global jihadist stage clearly reveals that he is revered within his chosen community. That does not mean, however, that his death will automatically result in new attempts to attack the United States and the West. Jihadists already possess what they believe is adequate justification to attack, and they are not in search of another "good reason" for future attacks.
Rahman was born May 3, 1938, in Egypt's Dakahlia governorate, which lies in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo. As a child he lost his eyesight to juvenile diabetes, but despite his blindness, his relatives and teachers noted that he was a very bright child — an aptitude Rahman turned toward Islamic studies — and he reportedly memorized the entire Koran. Rahman went on to earn a doctorate in Koranic studies at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, which is widely considered the pre-eminent university in Sunni Islam.
While at Al-Azhar, Rahman befriended Palestinian theologian Abdullah Azzam, who would later prove to be a crucial force in garnering international support — both theologically and materially — for the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Azzam also was in many ways the philosophical and theological father of al Qaeda, which was to serve as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. During his time at Al-Azhar, Rahman also met current al Qaeda No. 2 and fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Rahman, who evolved into an outspoken critic of the Egyptian regime — reviling it as corrupt and secular — became involved with many like-minded individuals in Egypt's militant Islamist community. Shortly after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Rahman was arrested along with scores of other Egyptian militants and imprisoned for three years. Although he was never convicted, Rahman is widely acknowledged as the cleric who issued the fatwa that sanctioned Sadat's assassination. Rahman is considered the spiritual leader of the Egyptian Gamaah al-Islamiyah, though he is likewise revered by al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Rahman also was arrested and imprisoned several other times between 1985 and 1990 on a variety of charges, including inciting violence, taking over mosques and writing bad checks.
When he was not in Egyptian custody, however, Rahman traveled widely throughout the Muslim world, preaching and teaching. Like many Muslims in the mid- to late 1980s, Rahman's travels took him to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was reunited with the likes of Azzam and al-Zawahiri. His blindness prevented him from participating in the fighting, but as a respected cleric he played a crucial role as a preacher and motivator. After becoming involved in the jihadist cause, he traveled extensively in both the Muslim world and Europe in an effort to enlist volunteers and raise money for the jihadist fight against the Soviets. These travels also included stops in the United States, where he spoke at a series of mosques and Islamic centers to raise money and recruits for the Afghan jihad.
During this mid-80s period, Rahman became close friends with Osama bin Laden, who ran the Maktab al-Khidmat (or Afghan Services Bureau) organization with Azzam and who was involved in coordinating the money, recruits and weapons that Azzam, Rahman and others were able to raise and send to Pakistan. On May 8, 1990, Rahman applied for another tourist visa to enter the United States, this time at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. Many conspiracy theories revolve around the issuance of this visa, but the real story is that a non-American clerk in the consular section of the embassy decided that, because of Rahman's blindness and his aged appearance (though he was just shy of 52), he posed no terrorist threat and that it was therefore not worth checking his name through the microfiche lookout system. So the clerk initialed and checked the "lookout checked" box on Rahman's visa application without really performing the check. Had the check been performed, it would have revealed that Rahman had been placed on an internal State Department watch list Aug. 7, 1987. The visa form itself also contained notes indicating that an interview had been conducted, though — contrary to what some conspiracy theorists allege — it did not at all resemble a visa application that had been issued as a result of a "referral" by a U.S. government employee. Seeing on the visa application that the lookout check was clear, and that Rahman had previously traveled to the United States on a tourist visa and had left as required, as well as his extensive travel to European countries, a U.S. consular officer determined that Rahman was not at risk to overstay his visa and issued one. (The consular officer had not seen a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo advising that Rahman was heading for Khartoum and might be seeking refuge in the United States). Armed with a tourist visa that expired Dec. 16, 1990, Rahman entered the United States on July 18, 1990.
This time, however, Rahman did not leave. Rather, he went on to become the imam of three mosques in New York and Jersey City, N.J. He also assumed control of the al-Khifa refugee center in Brooklyn, also known as the Brooklyn Jihad Office, after its leader, Mustafa Shalabi, was slain in February 1991. Shalabi is believed to have been killed by Mahmoud Abouhalima, who was later convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Within months of his arrival in the United States, Rahman's militant preaching had stirred up the Muslim community that surrounded him. In November 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a member of Rahman's Jersey City mosque, assassinated radical Jewish leader Mier Kahane in a midtown Manhattan hotel. Later, several other people associated with Rahman were convicted for their part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Rahman himself was arrested in 1993 and charged with seditious conspiracy for, among other things, issuing a verbal fatwa that a plan to attack a number of New York landmarks was religiously permissible. Rahman was convicted on the conspiracy charges in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. He has always had frail health, and is currently being held at the U.S. Medical Center for Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., where he is being treated for a variety of health problems, including diabetes, gallstones, arterial disease and high blood pressure. Because of his poor health and life sentence, he will die in U.S. custody.
During Rahman's travels and his preaching to foreign jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he developed a wide following, and by the late 1980s tapes of his sermons could be found in bazaars from Sanaa to Peshawar to Jakarta. Rahman regularly called for the destruction of the United States and other non-Islamic countries, as well as for the overthrow of "corrupt" rulers in Islamic countries, including Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Following Azzam's death in 1989, Rahman replaced him as the pre-eminent theologian of the jihadist movement. As a credentialed Islamic scholar from a respected university, Rahman possesses a religious authority that other movement leaders, such as bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, simply do not have. Many people can (and do) question bin Laden's authority to issue fatwas, but no one can dispute Rahman's impeccable religious credentials. Although Rahman has been in custody since 1993, he clearly remains a significant figure in the global jihadist movement. This significance is reflected by the sheer number of references to him made by leading members of the movement in their public pronouncements. Some examples are:
- Oct. 6: In a message to the leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Abu Jihad al-Masri calls on group members in all cities to march in demand of Rahman's release.
- Sept. 29: In a videotape, al-Zawahiri warns U.S. President George W. Bush that "the liberation of our captives is a debt on our shoulders which we must fulfill." Rahman is one of the captives mentioned by name.
- Sept. 28: Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir issues a videotape calling on Muslim scholars to "not slacken in supporting the mujahideen," and claims success can only come from their direction. He reminds listeners that Rahman is incarcerated in a U.S. jail, and urges every "free Mujahid" in Iraq to work during the month of Ramadan and capture "Roman dogs" to secure Rahman's release.
- Sept. 10: Al-Zawahiri, in a release from al Qaeda media branch As-Sahab, calls on Muslims to make use of every opportunity to take revenge on the United States for its imprisonment of Rahman.
- Sept. 10: In a 9/11 anniversary documentary produced by As-Sahab, the narrator argues that Rahman is wrongly imprisoned. The production also includes the videotaped will of 9/11 hijacker Hamza al-Ghamdi, who mentions Rahman.
- Aug. 5: In a speech released by As-Sahab, al-Masri says the Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined al Qaeda in order to help "our great scholar, His Eminence, the unshakeable" Rahman, who is "languishing in the dungeons of the American prisons."
- July 27: A videotape by Abu Yehia al-Libi opens with a dedication to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Rahman and the "Chechen lion" Shamil Basayev, praising the men for their role in doing the "right thing" and for their adherence to Islam.
- July 13: Al-Jamaa, a magazine distributed by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, contains an article that mentions Rahman's incarceration.
- Jan. 12: Al Qaeda in Iraq releases a video titled, "The Battle of the Captured Sheikh, Dr. Omar Abdul Rahman," which contains a brief biography of Rahman, describes his arrests and includes footage of him inciting Muslims to jihad. The video also shows preparations for and the execution of suicide bombings, ostensibly in honor of Rahman.
- July 6, 2005: The Global Islamic Media Front releases a message calling on militants to make Rahman's release a priority in any hostage negotiations with the "infidels."
As these references indicate, Rahman is very important to the global jihadist network and to its al Qaeda vanguard. He is not merely an obscure Egyptian preacher who no longer is remembered in the jihadist world. That does not mean, however, that his death will automatically result in further attempts to attack the United States and the West. Indeed, several other important jihadist figures have been killed or captured since 9/11, and there has been no direct correlation between those events and subsequent attacks. There was no violent reaction to Rahman's 1993 arrest and, although the U.S. government issued alerts before his conviction warning of possible attacks or of kidnappings aimed at swapping hostages for his release, no such incident materialized. Although some later attacks were committed in Rahman's name (such as Gamaah al-Islamiyah's 1997 massacre of tourists in Luxor, Egypt), none appeared to be directly tied to Rahman's conviction or any apparent attempt to gain his release. A February 2005 letter allegedly written by Rahman while in prison also calls for Muslims to rise up in protest of his mistreatment. Although many statements mention Rahman, no attacks can be tied directly to this appeal. One reason for this is the jihadist belief that death and imprisonment are natural consequences of obeying Allah by following the path of jihad. Though death results in immediate entry to paradise, imprisonment also is honorable.
Additionally, if Rahman dies in custody, he will be viewed as a "shaheed," or martyr, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other jihadist militants who have been killed on the battlefield. Like al-Zarqawi, Rahman will be mourned, while poems, videos and songs about his martyrdom undoubtedly will be created. His death, however, will not be the sole motivator for new attacks against the United States or U.S. interests overseas. For many years, bin Laden and other jihadists who sought justification for the doctrine of defensive jihad cited events such as the embargo of Iraq or the imprisonment of Rahman to justify their charges of U.S. aggression against Islam. However, with U.S. forces on the ground in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (which is considered even more sacred than Afghanistan by many Muslims because of Baghdad's centuries-long tenure as the seat of the Islamic Caliphate), there is more than ample cause for those seeking to justify defensive jihad. In other words, there is not much more that the United States could do to provoke additional action by the jihadists, including killing major jihadist leaders such as bin Laden, al-Zawahiri or Rahman. The jihadists are not looking for a new excuse to attack the United States and its allies because they already are doing their utmost to strike as hard as they can.
The Attack Cycle as Factor
One other factor to consider is that it takes time to plan and execute a significant terrorist attack. For example, the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed revealed that he originally presented the "planes operation" to bin Laden for consideration in 1999, before the Millennium Bomb Plot was disrupted and the USS Cole attacked. The first operatives in the 9/11 plot arrived in the United States in January 2000 — 20 months before the attacks. Therefore, although the U.S. government might issue warnings of possible attacks following Rahman's death, it could be years before any attack related to Rahman was carried out — and that is only if any such plan were put in motion. However, it is entirely possible that an attack plan in the works at the time of Rahman's death could be falsely attributed to his death, or dedicated to him, as have some suicide bombings in Iraq. Rahman's death could inspire an attack by a jihadist lone wolf or small grassroots cell — entities that are not constrained by such a long attack cycle.
However, with so many controversial issues making headlines over the past few years — including Pope Benedict XVI's remarks in September, the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the courts-martial of U.S. troops for rapes and executions in Iraq — the death of a jihadist leader, even a significant one like Rahman, would seem to pale in comparison as a motivating factor. In a 1998 news conference, al Qaeda members read Rahman's purported last will and testament, saying it called for "violent revenge" should he die in U.S. custody. However, although jihadists might dedicate a future attack to Rahman, or claim one in his name or memory, his death will not be the real motivation.