Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Death behind bars

After a lifetime of fatwas justifying terrorism and inciting violence, notorious cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman died last week in a US federal prison


Omar Abdel-Rahman, who died last week at the age of 78 in Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina where he was serving a life sentence, asked to be buried in his native village in Daqhaliya, in Egypt. Will this wish be carried out? And what impact will his death have on the followers and disciples of the spiritual godfather of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya?

Detained in federal prisons since his conviction in New York in 1993 after being found guilty of planning a series of bombing attacks, Abdel-Rahman was transferred to the Butner Federal Correctional Complex on 22 February 2007. A spokesman for the facility said Abdel-Rahman died from complications of diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Abdel-Rahman was accused of collusion in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, which prosecutors said was part of a wider conspiracy.

Born in Gammaliya district in Daqhaliya in 1938, Abdel-Rahman became blind 10 months after his birth. He graduated in theology from Al-Azhar University in 1965. The Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) appointed him the imam of a mosque in a village in Fayoum. After obtaining a master’s degree he was appointed dean of the Faculty of Theology but was suspended in 1969 for his religious views. He was arrested for the first time on 13 October 1970 following the death of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Following his release he completed his doctoral studies. His thesis was titled “The position of the Quran on its adversaries as conceived in the Surat Al-Tawbah [Repentence]”. He was then appointed to the Faculty of Women and Theology at Al-Azhar University’s Assiut branch where he worked from 1974 to 1978. He was arrested again in 1981 following the assassination of president Anwar Al-Sadat.

During the investigations into Sadat’s assassination Aboud Al-Zomor confessed that Abdel-Rahman had issued a fatwa instructing followers to assassinate the president. During the trial prosecutor-general Ragaai Al-Arabi argued: “Omar Abdel-Rahman used his knowledge not for the purposes of good, but for evil. He utilised religion to promote aggression, not to promote brotherhood and love.”

Osama Hafez, the current chairman of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Shura Council, has argued that Abdel-Rahman did not call explicitly for Sadat’s assassination. In a press interview held after the 25 January Revolution, he said that the leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya at the time construed from Abdel-Rahman’s remarks that he had given implicit approval for the operation. Abdel-Rahman was subsequently acquitted of complicity in the assassination of Sadat and released from prison in October 1984.

Following his release Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya was embroiled in a leadership crisis which coincided with its merger with the Egyptian Jihad organisation. Conflicts erupted between supporters of “the prisoner” — Al-Zomor, who was still in jail — and supporters of the “blindman”, Abdel-Rahman.

In 1990 Abdel-Rahman went to the US where he would eventually be arrested, convicted and sentenced to life. From his cell in the US he declared his approval of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s ideological revision and its 1997 initiative to renounce violence. Following the 25 January Revolution members of his family staged a sit-in in front of the US Embassy in Cairo to demand his release.

Abdel-Rahman always stoked controversy. At one point clashes that suddenly erupted between former leaders of the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood over the role he played in the Assiut Security Directorate attack in 1981, the assassination of Sadat and attacks against tourists and other foreigners in Egypt in the 1990s.

According to press reports, many Islamists argue that Abdel-Rahman did not issue fatwas explicitly calling for such actions. Rather, he issued opinions or judgements that the organisation’s leaders and youth took as guidelines for their actions, without receiving direct instructions from him. There were also conflicts between second tier leaders, which led to decisions taken without referring to Abdel-Rahman. However, some former members of radical Islamist movements maintain that the cleric did explicitly issue the fatwas calling for attacks.

Nabil Naaim, founder of the Egyptian Jihad organisation, insists Abdel-Rahman did not issue the fatwas that led to the Assiut security directorate attack and to the attacks against tourists in the 1990s. He also argues that Abdel-Rahman was not a takfiri, pointing out that he publicly condemned the killing of the police in Assiut and ordered a two-month period of fasting for members of Al-Gamaa as a form of atonement. Naaim also makes claims about what led to Abdel-Rahman’s arrest in New York. The FBI, he says, had planted an informant to accompany Abdel-Rahman wherever he went. The informant, an Egyptian, recorded everything the cleric said. In one recording he spoke of the possibility of carrying out jihad against the US. It was interpreted as a fatwa calling for the bombing of the World Trade Centre.

Sameh Eid, a former Brotherhood official, counters that Abdel-Rahman was busy issuing fatwas declaring the state and society in Egypt to be heretic and that in the jihadist lexicon to pronounce someone a heretic or infidel is the same as sanctioning their death.

Former Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya member Kamal Habib argues that though Abdel-Rahman did not espouse the principle of takfir (heresy) he was vehemently opposed to the “resistant faction”, ie the institutions and officials impeding the application of Islam in society. However, Habib stressed, this concept did not imply heresy or the sanction of murder. Habib also argues that Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya had too many decision-makers, some of whom took independent actions, and Abdel-Rahman was a victim of disputes between the group’s leaders.

Habib says it is unclear which fatwas were issued by Abdel-Rahman and which by others in the group. In the case of the assassination of Sadat, he says Abdel-Rahman did not issue an explicit fatwa though the cleric preached that Sadat’s government violated the principles of the Surat Al-Tawbah, which some members of the organisation construed as a fatwa against Sadat.

As the dispute over Abdel-Rahman’s religious decrees continues, Ammar, Abdel-Rahman’s son, told the press that US authorities had contacted the family earlier this week to inform them of Abdel-Rahman’s death. Ammar says they asked the family to coordinate with the US Embassy in Cairo over Abdel-Rahman’s will, including the transfer of his remains to Cairo, only for the embassy to refuse, saying its mandate did not extend beyond helping US subjects in Egypt and it had nothing to do with foreign nationals in US prisons. Ammar added that it has not yet been determined when the body will be returned to Egypt but that the family was working to carry out Abdel-Rahman’s last will and testament and bury him in his native town in Daqhaliya.

Nageh Ibrahim, a former leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, told journalists reports of a severe deterioration in Abdel-Rahman’s health emerged several days before his death and that US intelligence agencies had contacted his family to ask them to officially apply to the US government to have him released on health grounds. Ibrahim asked the Egyptian and US governments “to coordinate to have his body transported to Egypt so that he can be buried in his country… his interment in Egypt would lay minds to rest.”

Ibrahim stressed that Abdel-Rahman had supported Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s initiative to renounce violence. He added, “many mistakes that were attributed to him were actually committed by those around him and not by him directly.”

Khaled Omar Abdel-Rahman says his father contacted his mother a week before his death and told her the prison authorities had withheld medications from him and would not allow him to listen to the radio. Khaled said that his father had suffered from diabetes and a number of other ailments for 40 years and received the harshest form of treatment from the prison authorities. He added that his father has said the phone call would be the last one he would make and that he could see his death approaching.

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