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HomeNewsboxOmar Abdel Rahman, Blind Cleric Found Guilty of Plot to Wage ‘War of Urban Terrorism,’ Dies at 78

Omar Abdel Rahman, Blind Cleric Found Guilty of Plot to Wage ‘War of Urban Terrorism,’ Dies at 78

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 an overarching plot that included the killing of a militant rabbi in 1990 and the conspiracy to blow up New York landmarks.

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Emad Salem, right, escorting Mr. Abdel Rahman from an interview in March 1993.

Credit
Edward Keating/The New York Times

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 regarded 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 Muslim prisoners or even listening to Arabic radio. Failing blood circulation due to diabetes 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 1973 doctoral degree 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 banned the faithful in a mosque where he was presiding, in the town of Fayoum, from praying after the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a secularist. He was imprisoned for several months.

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Mr. Abdel Rahman during a news conference in New Jersey in April 1993.

Credit
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

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 on him.

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 anti-government 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 provoked 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. When Mr. Abdel Rahman was asked about bombing the United Nations, he replied, “It is not forbidden, but it will put the Muslims in a bad light.” He suggested looking for ways to “inflict damage on the American Army itself.”

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.”

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