Before bin Laden, there was the “blind sheik.”
A generation ago, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman stood as the embodiment of Islamist terrorism: The bearded religious extremist with the trademark red-and-white cap and dark sunglasses 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 celebre for Islamist political leaders who came to power during the Arab Spring.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi assumed office with a pledge to press the United States for Abdel Rahman’s release.
In October, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video in which he called on Egyptians to kidnap Americans to exchange for the blind sheik.
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.
Abdel Rahman “was the godfather of all Islamic movements,” said Zawahiri’s younger brother, Mohamed al-Zawahiri, who was released from prison in Egypt last year. “Maybe if he was not going through such injustice, 9/11 would not have happened. [Abdel Rahman’s imprisonment] was one of the reasons that the people felt so strongly about the American offenses against the Islamic people.”
Abdel Rahman, the 74-year-old spiritual leader of Gamaa Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, has been a revered figure in Islamist extremist circles since the early 1980s, when he was charged on suspicion of involvement in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. He was later acquitted.
But it was only after the fall of Hosni Mubarak — who kept many Islamists imprisoned or under close surveillance during his nearly 30 years as Egypt’s president — that calls for Abdel Rahman’s release have become so public and persistent.
The sheik’s family has led protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo since 2011, calling for him to be let go. Appeals for his release became so persistent that the U.S. Justice Department released a statement denying that Abdel Rahman’s freedom was up for negotiation.
“The era of fear is over,” said Gamal Saber, an influential Egyptian politician who adheres to the fundamentalist Salafist interpretation of Islam.
Branded a political outlaw in his homeland, Abdel Rahman traveled in 1990 to the United States, 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.
Andrew C. McCarthy III, a former federal prosecutor who had led the U.S. team that convicted Abdel Rahman, said the campaign for his release “has been thrumming along for 20 years.”
In 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden issued a videotaped call for the sheik’s release, according to Peter Bergen, a journalist and author. Bergen described Abdel Rahman as the “spiritual guide of 9/11,” citing a religious edict the cleric wrote from his prison cell, calling on Muslims to strike out against their enemies and “kill them in the sea, on land and in the air.”
Abdel Rahman’s family maintains that he is innocent and that he should be released, at the very least out of “mercy” for his age and health. The cleric suffers from severe diabetes and is bound to a wheelchair, according to his son Abdallah.
Communications are restricted to 15- minute telephone calls with his family every five to 10 days. Beyond that, Abdallah said, his father is not permitted contact with the outside world, out of fears that he would urge his followers to commit violence.
“He has fallen off the map here because he has been in jail for such a long time and has no means of communicating with his followers,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
Ibish said that although Abdel Rahman is not widely popular in Egypt, Salafists view him as “a bona fide religious and political figure who was convicted on very scant grounds, at least in their view.”
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood would not consider Abdel Rahman one of their own, Ibish said, but they find it politically useful to champion his cause to cover their “right flank.”
Abdel Rahman’s name, meanwhile, has been invoked by a new generation of jihadists, including armed militants who offered to trade American hostages at the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria for him. The deal was never explored by Algeria, which launched an armed raid that led to the deaths of at least 29 militants and 37 captives.
A shadowy Libyan militant group calling itself the Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman Brigade asserted responsibility for a string of attacks on Western targets in Libya last year, including a deadly Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost and CIA annex in the eastern city of Benghazi. Although responsibility for the attack has not been firmly established, Abdallah said the killers “were acting in the name of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.”
Abdallah insists that his family does not condone violence, but he said 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.”
Hauslohner reported from Cairo. Julie Tate and Sari Horwitz in Washington contributed to this report.