Before bin Laden, there was the blind sheik. A generation ago, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman stood as the embodiment of Islamist terrorism: A bearded, religious extremist with a trademark red and white cap and dark sunglasses who helped orchestrate the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and plotted several unrealized attacks against other New York landmarks.
Two decades of imprisonment in high-security detention centers in the United States have diminished his public profile. But the Egyptian cleric is gaining notoriety among a new generation of Muslim holy warriors, and he has become a cause celebrate for Islamist political leaders who came to power during the Arab Spring.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi came into office with a pledge to press the case with the United States for Abdel Rahman’s release.
And Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of a jihadist brigade that attacked American and European oil workers this month at a natural gas facility in Algeria, placed Abdel Rahman’s liberty on his list of political demands.
The 74-year-old spiritual leader of the extremist Gama’a Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, Abdel Rahman has been a revered figure in Islamic extremist circles since the early 1980s, when he was charged, and acquitted, for his alleged role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.
Preached in Brooklyn, N.J.
Branded a political outlaw in his homeland, Abdel Rahman traveled to the United States in 1990, where the blind cleric preached at mosques in Brooklyn and New Jersey and, according to federal prosecutors, plotted the killing of hundreds of Americans.
He was convicted in October 1995 on charges of conspiring to “levy a war of urban terrorism against the United States,” including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, and a plan to blow up the United Nations headquarters and other New York landmarks. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Abdallah insists that his family does not condone violence, but he said that the United States is responsible for turning his father into a symbol of violent resistance.
“All those actions did not come from nothing, for it was America that pushed the Muslim youth to revolt,” Abdallah said. “America is using force, and what is taken by force must be returned by force.”