The Forgotten Jihadist

By: Dr. Brian Nussbam

Much ink has been spilled recently about the potential impact of the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. Analysts, pundits, experts, and others have widely questioned whether their deaths increase the likelihood of terror attacks in the short term, whether they will cause the jihadist movement to fracture and fray, whether they will, in the longer term, lead to the demise of the movement for which the men were great symbols.

These are all worthwhile and important questions that need to be answered. However, in the frenzy to find meaning in the deaths of these terrorists, and frankly in the years prior to those deaths, a major figure in the same movement has been forgotten. This man will also die soon, and his death will also be blamed—at least by some—on the United States: Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Abdel-Rahman, currently imprisoned in North Carolina, is one of the most important figures in radical Islamist thought of the past century. Not only is he intellectually important to the movement, but outside the United States he is widely seen as one of its key symbolic figures. Born in 1938, Abdel-Rahman has been in poor health for at least the last decade and is unlikely to live much longer. When Abdel-Rahman dies in a U. S. prison facility—as he inevitably will in the near future—there is the potential for a major backlash from radical Islamists around the world, a backlash that we should be preparing for now.

Abdel-Rahman is, arguably at least, as important to the global jihadist movement as Bin Laden was. While he never had the notoriety, or the riches-to-revolutionary-rags life story of the Al Qaeda leader, Abdel-Rahman has substantially deeper religious credibility in the Muslim world and a gravitas that Bin Laden could never match. He was the religious guide and theological sanctioner of violence for several revolutionary Islamist organizations in Egypt, including Gamaa Islamiyah and Tanzim al Jihad, from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Known in the United States mostly as "The Blind Sheikh," Abdel-Rahman in the 1990s lived in New York and New Jersey while serving as one of the key U.S. representatives of the Maktab al Khidamat (the "services bureau"), the organization Bin Laden co-founded with Palestinian Abdullah Azzam to support the jihad in Afghanistan which was a precursor to Al Qaeda. Abdel-Rahman gained notoriety when he was linked to the men responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In 1995 he was convicted on charges of "seditious conspiracy" related to a plot to bomb landmarks in the New York City area. That plot was purported to include such targets as the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and a federal building.Sentenced to life in prison, Abdel-Rahman is currently housed in the Butner Federal Medical Center in North Carolina.

Abdel-Rahman's importance to the global jihadist movement goes far beyond what most Americans know about him. Abdel-Rahman was, according to journalist Peter Bergen, the first figure in the movement to give "religious sanction to attacks on American aviation, shipping, and economic targets."[1] A fatwa attributed to Abdel-Rahman, and purportedly issued in the mid-1990s from his prison cell in the United States, called for all Muslims to cut off relations with Americans, Christians, and Jews, and to:

tear them to pieces, destroy their economies, burn their corporations, destroy their peace, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, and kill them on sea, land and air.[2]

Unlike similar fatwas by Osama Bin Laden and current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abdel-Rahman is deemed by many to actually have the religious credentials to call for such attacks. Bin Laden (trained as an engineer) and Zawahiri (trained as a surgeon) lack the proper religious bona fides to issue such fatwas, or religious rulings. Abdel-Rahman, on the other hand, has impeccable religious credentials, including a doctorate from Al Azhar University—an Egyptian institution that is considered the most illustrious religious university in the Islamic world.

In fact, so central is Abdel-Rahman to the movement that some of Al Qaeda's discussions and planning regarding potential operations were purportedly designed to help secure his release. Some of the threat information that came into federal intelligence agencies in the summer of 2001—a period during which the 9/11 Commission reported "the system was blinking red"—had to do with potential Al Qaeda operations tied directly to Abdel-Rahman. According to an excerpt from a declassified intelligence report, available from CNN, there were unconfirmed reports that Al Qaeda operatives in the United States were involved in plots to secure Abdel-Rahman's release that included hijacking an aircraft. For example:

We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [redacted] service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Sheikh" Umar Abd al-Rahman and other US held extremists.

The system was "blinking red" before the attacks of September 2001, and at least some of that intelligence was tied to Abdel-Rahman. And Abdel-Rahman's galvanizing effect continues.

In early December 2011, Al Qaeda's media office As-Sahab (The Clouds) released a new video featuring Zawahiri, in which he threatens the life of an American hostage and makes numerous demands of the United States. These demands include ending air and drone strikes in numerous countries, shutting down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and releasing detained jihadists like Ramzi Yousef. This list of demands reads like a primer on jihadist gripes —and, notably, one of the eight demands Zawahiri made included:

Releasing Shaykh Omar Abdulrahman, and dropping all the charges against him and stopping any legal pursuit of him, and returning him to his nation, dignified and endeared.[1]

It is fairly clear that Abdel-Rahman was, and remains today, a major figure in the global jihadist movement. Less clear is what his inevitable death in a U.S. prison will mean for the movement—or what it will mean for U.S. security. There is reason for concern.In a "will" released at the same time as his influential fatwa, Abdel-Rahman said "If they [the Americans] kill me...do not let my blood be shed in vain. Rather, extract the most
violent revenge...

Dr. Brian Nussbaum teaches Terrorism and Political Violence at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs at the State University of Albany. His work has appeared in journals including Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Global Crime and in numerous edited volumes. The opinions included here are his and are not representative of any agency or institution with which he is affiliated.


[1] Ayman al-Zawahiri, "Message of Hope and Glad Tidings For Our People in Egypt, Episode 8" (December 1, 2011), retrieved from Flashpoint Partners website: http://www.globalterroralert.com/images/documents/pdf/0207/flashpoint_zawahiri120111.pdf/ (accessed December 3, 2011).


[1] Peter L. Bergen, The Osama Bin Laden I know (New York: Free Press, 2006), Page 206.

[2] Peter L. Bergen, The Longest War (New York: Free Press, 2011), Page 29-30.

[3] Presidents Daily Briefing – Aug 6, 2001. "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US", retrieved from CNN website (Posted April 4, 2004): http://articles.cnn.com/2004-04-10/politics/august6.memo_1_bin-conduct-terrorist-attacks-abu-zubaydah?_s=PM:ALLPOLITICS (Accessed Jan 6, 2012)

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