‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rah&#803man

Role box
- Spiritual leader and muftī of Jamācah al-Islāmīyah al-Misrīyah
- Currently serving a life sentence for terrorist activities in U.S.
Education, Career and Personal Background
cUmar cAbd al-Rahmān was born in 1938 in the village of al-Jamālīyah on the Nile Delta. He lost his sight ten months after his birth1 due to childhood diabetes. Before he reached the age of five he was enrolled in a school for blind children where he studied a Braille version of the Qur'ān and2 by the age of 11 he had memorized it.3

He earned admission to an Islamic boarding school in the Azhar system and then to the department of Usūl al-Dīn (Fundamentals of Islam) at the Azhar University in Cairo where he specialized in tafsīr (interpretation of the Qur'ān).

After graduating with honors in 1965, he was sent as a preacher to the small town of Fīdimīn on the outskirts of Fayyūm about 100 km south of Cairo where he became one of the most outspoken Muslim clerics to denounce Egypt's secularism.4, 5 By his own account, he would tell stories in his sermons about the pharaoh and the listeners would understand that he was referring to President Jamāl cAbd al-Nāsir.6 During the next three years, he completed two diplomas and a research project equivalent to a master degree from the Azhar.7 He started functioning as a guest preacher in many different mosques in the governorate capital of Fayyūm.8 Despite heavy surveillance from the authorities, he attained a doctorate in 1972.9 After this he went to Saudi Arabia for some years where he functioned as a university professor.10

In the following decades he developed close ties with different militant, Islamic movements in Egypt, eventually becoming the ideological leader of Jamācah al-Islāmīyah. He was imprisoned in Egypt in 1970 following the death of president Jamāl cAbd al-Nāsir and again from 1981-84 following the murder of president Anwar al-Sādāt, during detention he was severely tortured. Beginning in the mid 1980s, he began traveling extensively outside Egypt appearing at different times in London, Switzerland, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.11

In the late 1980s he emerged as a leader of the so-called Arab Afghans who went to Afghanistan to assist the Afghan mujāhids in their fight against the Soviet invasion.

In 1990, cAbd al-Rahmān entered the USA and in 1993 he was arrested there on charges of terrorism. Later, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison which he is currently serving.12 [For further details, see: Political/Religious Involvement.]

cUmar cAbd al-Rahmān's full name is cUmar Ahmad cAlī cAbd al-Rahmān. He is also known under a number of aliases such as: Omar Abdel al-Rahman, Omar Ahmed Ali, Sheik Omar, Sheik Rahman and The Blind Sheikh.


- Close affiliation to a number of militant, Islamic groups.
Political/Religious Involvement
Denouncing Egypt's secularism:
Since his first employment as a preacher in 1965, cUmar cAbd al-Rahmān has been one of the most outspoken clerics. He has repeatedly denounced the secularism of the Egyptian regime. His opinions led the Egyptian authorities to monitor him closely ever since his graduation from the Azhar in 1965. He especially attracted their attention when, upon the death of Egyptian president Jamāl cAbd al-Nāsir in 1970, he declared that it would be sinful to pray for the dead president because he was an infidel.13

For this comment, cAbd al-Rahmān was arrested and detained for eight months without charges. During his time in jail he held daily prayer meetings and gained a following among fellow inmates.14

During the 1970's he developed close ties to Egypt's two most militant, Islamic organizations, al-Jihād al-Islāmīyah al-Misrīyah (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and Jamācah al-Islāmīyah and in 1980 he emerged as the leader of a short-lived period of cooperation between the two organizations.15

On October 18, 1981, he was imprisoned again16 and spent three years in prison where he was severely tortured while awaiting trial on charges of issuing a fatwá that resulted in the killing of Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sādāt on October 6 the same year. Although it surfaced during the trial that some of the men, who were later convicted for the murder, had in fact sought cAbd al-Rahmān's scholarly opinion on the issue, cAbd al-Rahmān was acquitted due to lack of an organizational link17 and was expelled from Egypt18.

In 1989 he was again arrested and put to trial in Egypt following an anti-Christian riot in Fayyūm where he had been preaching during the regular Friday prayer.19

Afghan mujāhid:
In the mid-1980s cAbd al-Rahmān was in Peshawar, one of the largest training camps for the group known as Arab-Afghans. The group consisted of approximately 10.000 men from different Middle Eastern countries who fought on the side of the Afghan Mujaheddin against the Soviet invasion and who were supported by the USA 20. They were led by al-Rahmān's former professor, cAbd Allāh Azzam who had co-founded the Maktab al-Khadamāt (MAK) along with Usāmah Bin Lādin.21 In the following years, cAbd al-Rahmān travelled all over the world to recruit new mujāhids and after the killing of Azzam in 1989, al-Rahmān rose to become the spiritual leader of the international jihadist arm of the MAK [office of services] of al-Qācidah.22 Activities in the USA: In 1990, cAbd al-Rahmān traveled to New York to gain control of MAK's activities in the USA.23 He was given a visa from the U.S-embassy in Sudan despite the fact that his name was on a U.S. State Department list of suspected terrorists barred from entering the U.S.

In an interview from 2001, Egyptian president, Husnī Mubārak indirectly blamed the American authorities for al-Rahmān's actions, saying that: "The Americans took […] cUmar cAbd al-Rahmān, to Saudi Arabia and then to the Sudan. Then they gave him a visa and he went to America."24 He furthermore stated that the Egyptian authorities had warned the U.S. about him.

In 1993, cAbd al-Rahmān was charged with leading a terrorist group that orchestrated the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1990 assassination of Jewish Defense League leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, as well as a foiled plot to blow up the United Nations building, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and the Manhattan offices of the FBI. cAbd al-Rahmān was convicted on these charges in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison.25

Continuing influence:
Despite that fact that the American authorities have implemented the highest level of security measures, which includes barring cAbd al-Rahmān from seeing his family, he has still been able to send messages to his followers.26 This led to the seven-month detainment in 1995 of his lawyer, Muntassir al-Zayyat for acting as de-facto spokesperson for al-Jamācah al-Islāmīyah.27

Furthermore, cAbd al-Rahmān's imprisonment continues to be a source of inspiration for various militant, Islamic groups who have used terrorist attacks to call for his release. Usāmah Bin Lādin has on several occasions mentioned the imprisonment of cAbd al-Rahmān as a reason for al-Qācidah 's attacks. These include such incidents as the attack against the American missile destroyer, USS Cole outside the port of Aden in Yemen in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors,28 and the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998.29

In 1997, members of al-Jamācah al-Islāmīyah launched an attack in Luxor, an Egyptian tourist site, which killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians.30 During the attack, they distributed flyers calling for cAbd al-Rahmān's release. One flyer was found inside the slit torso of one of the victims.31

During 1999, there were negotiations between Egypt and the USA about transferring the elderly cAbd al-Rahmān to an Egyptian prison 32, since the FBI expected violent reprisals in case of his death in prison.33Their fear was based on a statement distributed at an al-Qācidah conference in 1998 said to be cAbd al-Rahmān's last will and testament. The statement reads: "My brothers, if they kill me -- which they will certainly do -- hold my funeral and send my corpse to my family but do not let my blood be shed in vain. Rather extract the most violent revenge."34 cAbd al-Rahmān was never transferred, but later the same year, his wife and brother were allowed to visit him in prison.35

In December 2006, cAbd al-Rahmān fell ill and was admitted to hospital. He was later returned to prison.

cUmar cAbd al-Rahmān's ideology is inspired by the Islamic thinker Ibn Taymīyah (1266-1328 AD) who sees it as an individual duty for each Muslim to oppose and even kill any unjust ruler, who does not rule according to Islam.36 In an interview dating from 1989, cAbd al-Rahmān rejects the view held by other Muslim scholars that the three levels of "calling for good and denouncing evil" are restricted for appropriate groups in society. It is said that only the state can act "by the sword", the cUlamā' "by tongue" and the ordinary believer "by heart." cAbd al-Rahmān rejects any such division between believers and claims that the Sharīcah in its entirety applies to all Muslims.

In this context, the use of violence by Muslim groups is seen as pure self-defense against a repressive regime that does not allow for its Muslim subjects to live as true Muslims in a society where true Islamic Sharīcah is enforced. The real aggressor is the unjust regime and it is better to become a martyr than to comply with its heretic rule.

Attempts to reform society through participation in democratic institutions will not yield any reward but will only lend legitimacy to a basically unjust and illegitimate regime. Such participation thus is not permissible since it leaves the general public in confusion over whether to acknowledge the regime.37

Though he studied mainly in the Shāficī School of jurisprudence in Islam, he also studied works from the other three schools, and his followers claim that he did not limit himself to this school when giving fatwás.38

Denouncing violence/developments in Jamācah al-Islāmīyah:
In 1989, cAbd al-Rahmān termed the struggle between al-Jamācah al-Islāmīyah and the government as a continuing fight between good and evil, right and wrong, which dates back to Adam and Eve. As such, there can be no end to the struggle.39

In 1997, four months before the Luxor massacre, he issued a statement from his prison in the U.S.A. calling for a cease-fire in Egypt, however still not allowing for participation in democracy or other "unlawful roads.40, 41 The statement was opposed by a number of international, Islamist leaders including Usāmah Bin Lādin and the London-based Abū Hamzah al-Misrī.42 In 2000, he allegedly withdrew his support for the no-violence initiative because of lack of progress in meeting the organization's demands.43

Involvement in Arab-West/Intercultural/Interfaith Relations
Additional Information on Other Issues
Debates over Jamācah al-Islāmīyah's renouncing violence

Both the content and the credibility of statements from within the clandestine organization remains disputed.44 In an article from 1999, the Egyptian professor and expert on Islamic groups, Diyā' Rashwān offered an analysis in which he foresaw that the Jamācah al-Islāmīyah had the potential to transform itself to a genuinely non-violent, political organization based on an Islamic world view. However, according to Rashwān this transformation would only be complete if and when the elements inside al-Jamācah al-Islāmīyah who still adhered to violence, would split off an form their own group.45

Sa cd al-Dīn Ibrāhīm, an Egyptian human rights activist, was one of the first Western-trained sociologists to study the Islamic movements in the late 1970s. He relates that when he was imprisoned along with some of the historical leaders of Jamācah and other radical movements during the attacks on September 11, 2001, some of them told him, that they were truly sorry for what had happened, and that they, in their position as historical role-models felt partly responsible. Ibrāhīm encouraged them to publish their revised thoughts, which they did in three books following their release from prison.46

In 2006, Jamācah launched a new website which caused the debate over the changes inside the group to reappear. The new version of their website carried a new logo which showed a copy of the Qur'ān topped by rays of light and framed by the Qur'ānic verse "Establish the religion and be not divided therein."47 The old logo had shown a copy of the Qur'ān surrounded by two swords and framed by the Qur'ānic verse: "And fight them until persecution is no more and the religion is for Allah."48 In an article published by the well-reputed website, Islam Online, Diyā' Rashwān re-iterated his perception, that this change of outlook constituted a real, qualitative change in the ideology of the group to denounce violence and not only a change in strategy to postpone the use of violence. This view was supported by the Coptic, civil activist Dr. Rafīq Habīb.49

In 2006, the al-Qā cidah number two, Ayman al-Zawāhirī, claimed that the Jamā cah had joined the international al-Qā cidah network. This was, however, denied by leaders of the Jamā cah. It has not been possible for this biography to ascertain precisely which individuals are referred to in the different developments within the organization. Most Egyptian and Western policymakers tend to remain skeptic about the genuine character of the group's new, non-violent ideology.

Ane Skov Birk, March 2007
2 http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/55207073.shtml
3 Ibid.
4 Even though the second article of the Egyptian Constitution states that the Islamic Sharācah is the primary source of legislation, in reality most Egyptian legislation is molded over French and British imperial law. Furthermore, many Islamists view the Egyptian regime as non-Islamic because of its close ties with the U.S. and the peace agreement with Israel.
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Abdel-Rahmān
6 http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/55207073.shtml
7 http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/55207073.shtml
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 It has not been possible to ascertain which university he taught at, however several sources point to his teaching in Saudi Arabia: http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/56691766.shtml and http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651.
11 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
12 Ibid.
13 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
14 http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/56691766.shtml
15 "Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule", Maye Kassem, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.
16 http://egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/67836856.shtml
17 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
18 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Abdel-Rahmān
19 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
20 RNSAW 1999, 18, art 9.
21 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Abdel-Rahmān
22 Ibid
23 Ibid
24 http://www.likud.nl/extr155.html
25 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
26 http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/lynnestewart1.html
27 RNSAW 1999, 14, art 6.
28 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uss_cole
29 RNSAW 1999, 18, art 9.
30 http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/lynnestewart1.html
31 http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/lynnestewart1.html
32 RNSAW 1999, 32, art 25; RNSAW 1999, 33, art 24 and RNSAW 1999, 41, art 10.
33 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
34 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Abdel-Rahmān
35 RNSAW 1999, 36, art 25; and RNSAW 1999, 44 art 19.
36 http://www.tkb.org/KeyLeader.jsp?memID=5651
37 http://www.tawhed.ws/r?i=4075&PHPSESSID=6e7cd3991ebce2b89175bbbacb81ca16
38 http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/56691766.shtml
39 http://www.tawhed.ws/r?i=4075&PHPSESSID=6e7cd3991ebce2b89175bbbacb81ca16
40 RNSAW 1999, 40, art 18.
41 RNSAW 1999, 44, art 20.
42 RNSAW 1998, 44, art 2.
43 AWR 2000, 26, art 3.
44 AWR 2000, 26, art 2;
AWR 2000, 25, art 8;
AWR 2000, 28, art 4;
RNSAW 1999, 11, art 2;
RNSAW 1999, 43, art 12; and
AWR 2002, 9, art 19.
45 Islamists in transition: AWR 1999, 11, art 2.
46 Interview with CAWU-staff on 3 May, 2007.
47 Surat al-Shura, (42) Ayah 13, http://www.al-sunnah.com/call_to_islam/quran/pickthall/surah42.html
48 Surat al-Baqarat (2), Ayah 193, http://www.al-sunnah.com/call_to_islam/quran/pickthall/surah2.html
49 http://www.islamonline.net/arabic/Daawa/movement/2006/07/01.shtml
    Biographical material:
http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/56691766.shtml (Arabic)
http://www.egyig.com/Public/articles/essay/6/55207073.shtml (Arabic)
http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/221C61F4-6ABC-424E-B249-911138E9DBAF.htm?wbc_purpose=Basic (Arabic)
http://www.tawhed.ws/r?i=4075&PHPSESSID=6e7cd3991ebce2b89175bbbacb81ca16 (Arabic)
-Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule", Maye Kassem, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.
Further readings:
Website of Egyptian Jamācah al-Islāmīyah:
Position towards dialogue
Opposing and violently against any cooperation with what he terms kāfirūn (unbelievers).
Ane Skov Birk, March 2007.