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After 20 Years in Prison, the 'Blind Sheikh' is Back in the News; Here's What You Need to Know About Him

Omar Abdel Rahman (Photo Credit: AP)

After more than 20 years out of commission in a U.S. prison, the "Blind Sheikh" is suddenly back in the news amid demands from Egypt that he be released and a report by TheBlaze that the Obama Administration may be considering engaging in a dialog about a possible relocation of the radical Islamist cleric.

Yesterday evening, the Blaze reported based on sources close to the Obama Administration that the State Department has discussed internally whether to engage in talks to transfer custody of "The Blind Sheikh," aka the radical Islamist cleric named Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted after the World Trade Center attack in 1993 on charges of plotting a campaign of assassinations and bombings.

Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison, has been described as the "Pope of Jihad," though his own followers refer to him as the "Emir of Jihad," according to prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, the former federal prosecutor  who was the lead prosecutor in the Blind Sheikh case.

The following is a timeline, compiled by TheBlaze, of the life of Omar Abdel Rahman to refresh our collective memories about his history and the reasons he is now in prison.

The Life of Omar Abdel Rahman

May 3, 1938: Birth of a Terrorist

Omar Abdel Rahman is born in Al Gamalia, Egypt. He contracts childhood diabetes soon afterwards, which eventually causes him to go blind. While studying a braille translation of the Koran, he becomes fascinated with Islamic theology. By the age of 11, according to investigative reporter Peter Lance, Rahman had already memorized the whole Koran.

1965: Graduation from Cairo's Al Azhar University

 Rahman graduates from Al Azhar University in Cairo with a degree in Koranic Studies, having been influenced by radical Islamist scholars such as Sayyid Qutb, one of the founding members of the original Muslim Brotherhood. During the 1970's, this latter group renounces violence, leading radical Islamist students in Egypt to form a new group - al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, or The Islamic Group. According to McCarthy, Rahman was one of the founders of The Islamic Group.

1969: Suspension from Faculty of Theology

According to bio of Rahman on an Egyptian website calling for Rahman's release, he was suspended from working at Al Azhar University. The reason for this suspension is unclear.

October 13, 1970: First Arrest

Rahman is arrested in connection with the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but is not convicted. He is released on October 6, 1971, but barred from teaching until the summer of 1973.

Summer, 1973: Ban lifted as Rahman begins teaching career

Rahman is appointed to work at Assiut University.

1977: Move to Saudi Arabia

Rahman moves to work at a women's college in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on loan from Assiut University. He remains close to The Islamic Group, as well as another organization known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad (headed by future Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri), throughout the 70's.

1980: Return to Egypt

Rahman ends his tenure at the women's college in Riyadh.

1981: Second Arrest

Rahman is arrested for the second time, this time for allegedly issuing a fatwa that may have been used as a pretext to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The Islamic Group's exact amount of responsibility for this act remains unclear, though several members later express regrets over being at all connected to Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible. However, according to McCarthy, Rahman himself bragged about issuing this fatwa after the fact, so he was most likely guilty.

October 2, 1984: Release from Prison/Expulsion

Despite his likely guilt, Rahman was acquitted of any responsibility for the death of Sadat in 1984. However, his acquittal doesn't leave him free of punishment, as he is expelled from Egypt. He travels to Afghanistan following the expulsion, where he connected with the Muhajideen, and with Osama bin Laden. He fights on bin Laden's side in the war against the Soviet Union, as an ally of the United States.

November 1989: Al Qaeda Leader

Rahman assumes control of the international jihadists' arm of Al Qaeda following the assassination of his former mentor, Abdullah Azam. Some suspect Osama bin Laden himself of orchestrating this assassination and subsequent shift of power, in order to consolidate power over Al Qaeda to himself.

July 1990: Journey to the United States

Rahman travels to the United States on a CIA-approved visa. He rapidly assumes control of Al Qaeda's resources in the United States. Peter Lance describes Rahman's impact on American homegrown terrorism:

“Prior to that time—1988, ’89—terrorism for all intents and purposes didn’t exist in the United States,” says Corrigan, the retired JTTF investigator. “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.” In Corrigan’s view, the arrival of the blind Sheikh was “a real coup for the local crew members like Shalabi, Nosair, Abouhalima and Ayyad.”

Before long, Rahman was preaching at three separate mosques: the al Farooq at Atlantic Avenue; the Abu Bakr on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn — a mosque his radical followers soon took over — and the dingy Al-Salaam (Mosque of Peace), located on the third floor of a Jersey City building above a cell-phone store.

Shalabi, whose help Ali Mohamed sought before his Afghan war leave, welcomed the Sheikh with open arms, even installing him in a Brooklyn apartment.

November 17, 1990: Visa revoked

The State Department catches up with Rahman, revoking his tourist visa.

April 1991: Permanent Resident

Rahman is granted "permanent resident" status in the United States. The State Department reacts with alarm, because Rahman is on a terrorist watch list. They attempt to revoke his permanent resident status.

March 6, 1992: Green card revoked

Rahman is allowed to reenter the United States to appeal the decision to revoke his permanent resident status. He fails on the appeal, and his card is revoked. Following this setback, he applies for political asylum in the United States. Thanks to what McCarthy describes as a comedy of errors on the part of the United States immigration authorities surrounding Rahman's status, he manages to maintain his residence in the United States in spite of being arguably the leading terrorist in the country for several years. The 911 commission later details this comedy of errors in full after a substantial investigation.

February 26, 1993: World Trade Center Bombed

In the first of many attempts to destroy the World Trade Center, a truck bomb is detonated below the base of the North tower of the World Trade Center. It fails to bring the structure down, but kills six people and wounds thousands. Four people are immediately arrested afterwards in connection with the bombing. They are all followers of Rahman's.

June 24, 1993: Rahman Arrested in United States

The Blind Sheikh and his co-conspirators are arrested for "seditious conspiracy," or making war against the United States, on charges ranging from the World Trade Center bombing to an unrealized plot to bomb major landmarks and assassinate major individuals in New York City. The indictment covers virtually his entire range of activities from the late 1980's through 1993. McCarthy, the prosecutor of the case, explains:

What happened was, after the bombing, we immediately arrested four people who were involved in just the bombing, and then I took over the investigation, because we also found out that the same cell was planning a series of simultaneous attacks against New York City landmarks. We investigated that for the ensuing three months or so, eventually including him. He was arrested in the summer 1993, even though he wasn't tried until January or October of 1995.

We wanted to do a case that told the historical story of the cell. We arrested him and indicted him in 1993 - it was a charge for seditious conspiracy, which is waging war against the United States, and it went from the late 1980s until we arrested them in the summer of '93, and it included everything including the training that went before the trade center bombing, the trade center bombing, and the landmark bombings.

October 1, 1995: Convicted!

Omar Abdel Rahman is convicted of seditious conspiracy, as well as numerous other crimes, including attempting to mastermind the assassination of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. His plot to blow up major landmarks, including the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and the George Washington Bridge is foiled. He is sent to serve out a life sentence at the Butner Federal Medical Center, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner. His terrorist network in the United States is crippled.

May 26, 1998: The Fatwa That Brought Down the Twin Towers

At a press conference hosted by Al Qaeda, a note smuggled out of Rahman's jail cell is read to a gathering of top Al Qaeda leaders, and journalists. The note reads as follows, according to New York Magazine:

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

September 11, 2001

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapse after being hit by two airplanes hijacked by members of Al Qaeda. Subsequent analysis explains that the theological justification for the attacks was provided by Rahman's fatwa three years earlier. Osama Bin Laden himself makes this argument.

March 1, 2012: Release?

The Arabic language newspaper al-Arabiya reports that the Obama administration has offered to release Omar Rahman back to Egypt as an exchange of prisoners. Andrew McCarthy writes at the time:

The Arabic-language newspaper al-Arabiyareported on Tuesday that the Obama administration has offered to release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to Egypt. Abdel Rahman is the infamous “Blind Sheikh” who was convicted in 1995 for masterminding a terrorist war against the United States that included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a plot to bomb New York City landmarks. According to the late Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder, Abdel Rahman is also responsible for the fatwa — the necessary Islamic edict — that green-lighted the 9/11 attacks.

The alleged offer to release Abdel Rahman is said to be an effort to end the impasse over 16 American “civil-society activists” (including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) being detained by Egypt’s interim government. The Blind Sheikh, the report says, would be part of a prisoner exchange: 50 Egyptians swapped for the Americans whose organizations are said to have received foreign funding in violation of Egyptian law. (See my post from last week on efforts by senior Republican senators to secure the Americans’ release.) Speculation that a quid pro quo may be in place has intensified because, in recent days, Egyptian authorities suddenly adjourned the trial of the Americans and lifted the travel ban against seven of them, including Sam LaHood — freeing them to return to the U.S.

The story from Al-Arabiya, translated:

The Egyptian government began taking steps to respond with the American offer to release 50 Egyptians being held in American prisons--including Shaykh ‘Umar ‘Abd-al-Rahman—in exchange for the release of 19 Americans accused in the case of foreign funding of civil society organizations. This is according to what was confirmed by Major General Muhammad Hani Zahir, an expert in military studies and international counterterrorism.

Zahir in comments to the newspaper 'al-Masriyun' said it was necessary for Egypt to exploit America's weak position, especially after condemning its citizens in cases affecting Egyptian sovereignty over its territory. He added that Egypt should not permit this exchange to take place unless the American administration agrees to release more than 500 Egyptians being held in American prisons, of whom the Egyptian foreign ministry knows nothing.

He added that the Egyptian foreign ministry asked the Egyptian embassy in Washington to take inventory of the number of Egyptians imprisoned in the United States. He also stated that the Egyptian consulate began taking steps to inventory the numbers of Egyptians imprisoned and being held up in investigations in various cases in the United States. He also added that among those imprisoned and whose files the consulate has studied is Shaykh 'Umar 'Abd-al-Rahman, the mufti of al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, and who is currently imprisoned in America.

Zahir closed his remarks by saying: "In my character as an international expert on counterterrorism, corruption, and money laundering, I ask the Egyptian government to direct to the Americans accused in the case of unlawful foreign funding of unlawful civil society organizations the accusation of "supporting and funding terrorism" within Egypt. This is because all of the physical and solid evidence confirms their involvement in supporting terrorism in Egypt. This is what verily happened in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, Shaykh Rihan Street, and Mansur Street, and in the events of the Ministers' Council. If this accusation is directed against them, they will be condemned to death by hanging, or to do hard labor for life. This will force the American administration to carry out all the Egyptian requests, at the forefront the release of all Egyptians being held in American prisons and the amendment of the terms of American aid, to where they give cash like they do to the Israelis, rather than giving commodities which don't provide any benefit to Egypt to the degree that it diminishes Egyptian sovereignty."

June 22, 2012: The Islamic Group Goes To Washington

Eli Lake of Newsweek reports that Hani Nour Eldin, a member of Rahman's organization and newly elected member of the Egyptian Parliament, has been invited Washington to meet with senior Obama administration officials.

June 29, 2012: Morsi Promises to Work to Free Rahman

Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi promises to work to free Rahman from American custody, as reported by the New York Times. In spite of previous reports, the Obama administration responds that there is "zero chance" that this will happen.

August 3, 2012: Release Predicted

Andrew McCarthy and Steve Coughlin predict that Rahman will be released after the 2012 election in a segment on the Glenn Beck program (10 minutes into the following video):

September 11, 2012: Arab Crisis

A rash of attacks hits the United States embassies in Libya, Cairo, Yemen and other countries. The motives are initially explained as coming from an anti-Islamic Youtube video. This quickly emerges as a falsehood. The Weekly Standard offers another hypothesis, given that the protests in Cairo were coordinated by the Islamic Group itself:

The investigation into the exact circumstances that brought us the twin attacks on U.S. diplomats in Egypt and Libya remains ongoing. Much remains uncertain. But a few new press accounts provide clues that are worth noting. And those clues point to a possible motive for the anti-American rallies and violence that has little to do with an offensive anti-Islam film.

It seems that bad actors in both Egypt and Libya decided to agitate for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh.” This is a longstanding cause for al Qaeda and other militants – even though it is inconceivable that Rahman will be released and terrorism on his behalf is itself, in many ways, a pretext.

Once more, Americans are forced to reckon with the influence of the Blind Sheikh.

September 17, 2012: Release Deal Reported

TheBlaze reports that the U.S. State Department is actively considering releasing Rahman for "humanitarian and health reasons."

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