Reports that surfaced Dec. 14 indicated imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman ("the Blind Sheikh") is on his deathbed, renewing fears that his death in U.S. custody could provide inspiration for militant attacks against the United States. The FBI issued a bulletin to state and local law enforcement saying that although there is no specific intelligence indicating an impending attack, law enforcement should increase their vigilance. Rahman, 68, is serving a life sentence in the U.S. Medical Center for Prisons in Springfield, Mo., on charges of seditious conspiracy. On Dec. 6, Rahman reportedly was rushed to a local hospital and given a blood transfusion. The FBI's latest report on Rahman's health indicates the sheikh's condition has improved and stabilized. Rahman — who suffers from a variety of medical conditions, including diabetes, gall stones, arterial disease and high blood pressure — is back in the federal prison medical facility. Rahman is a very important figure in the jihadist movement. Born in Egypt, he earned a degree in Quranic studies from Cairo's prestigious Al Azhar University and is a credentialed and respected Muslim theologian and scholar. He has long been a vocal opponent of Egypt's secular government. In the 1980s, he became the leader of militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah and developed close ties with other militant groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (headed at the time by future al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri). Rahman was tried for his alleged role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; he reportedly issued the fatwa that led to Sadat's assassination. Although acquitted, he was allegedly tortured while in prison and was later expelled from Egypt. He made his way to Afghanistan, where he taught and encouraged the mujahideen in their fight against the invading Soviet forces. There he also became close with future al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In 1990, Rahman entered the United States and began preaching at mosques in the New York City area, attracting a devoted following. One of Rahman's followers, El Sayyid Nosair, was tried for the assassination of Jewish political activist Meir Kahane; though acquitted of the assassination, Nosair was convicted on weapons charges and later as part of the seditious conspiracy linked to the 1993 World Trade Center attack. After the bombing, the FBI resumed its investigation of Rahman and his followers and obtained a recording of the sheikh issuing a fatwa calling for militant attacks on targets in the New York and New Jersey area. He was arrested and convicted in 1995 and sent to a federal penitentiary in Colorado. In 2003, his worsening medical condition required that he be transferred to his current prison in Missouri. Jihadists, including al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, have made mention of Rahman's imprisonment many times. In 1997, Gamaah al-Islamiyah claimed credit for an attack in which 58 European tourists and four Egyptians were gunned down in an attempt to force Rahman's release. In 1998, al Qaeda members held a news conference at which they distributed the sheikh's last will and testament, which he reportedly calls for "violent revenge" if he dies in U.S. custody. Considering his life sentence and his medical condition, Rahman will eventually die in prison. When this happens, he will likely achieve martyr status among jihadists. Whether Rahman's death provokes further Islamist militant attacks, the death of such a highly regarded leader will give the jihadists something new to rally around.
The Blind Sheikh's Importance to Militant Islamists