It is too early to tell, but not too early to be very worried.
Supporters of Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman demonstrate to call for his release in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on April 21, 2011
The Arabic-language newspaper al-Arabiya reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration has offered to release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to Egypt. Abdel Rahman is the infamous “Blind Sheikh” who was convicted in 1995 for masterminding a terrorist war against the United States that included the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a plot to bomb New York City landmarks. According to the late Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder, Abdel Rahman is also responsible for the fatwa — the necessary Islamic edict — that green-lighted the 9/11 attacks.
The alleged offer to release Abdel Rahman is said to be an effort to end the impasse over 16 American “civil-society activists” (including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) being detained by Egypt’s interim government. The Blind Sheikh, the report says, would be part of a prisoner exchange: 50 Egyptians swapped for the Americans whose organizations are said to have received foreign funding in violation of Egyptian law. (See my post from last week on efforts by senior Republican senators to secure the Americans’ release.) Speculation that a quid pro quo may be in place has intensified because, in recent days, Egyptian authorities suddenly adjourned the trial of the Americans and lifted the travel ban against seven of them, including Sam LaHood — freeing them to return to the U.S.
The al-Arabiya report is available only in Arabic so far, not on the newspaper’s English-language website. It was brought to the attention of the English-speaking blogosphere late Tuesday night by the indispensable Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch (see here). Through the intercession of Andrew Bostom, the website “Translating Jihad” has now published an English translation of the full story.
Blind since the age of four, the 73-year-old Abdel Rahman has been renowned in global Islamist circles as “the Emir of Jihad” since the 1970s. He is an al-Azhar University–educated sharia jurist and the leader of an Egyptian terrorist organization, Gama’at al-Islamiya (“the Islamic Group”). Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Gama’at purports to have renounced violence. Although he was acquitted by an Egyptian court for complicity in the 1981 slaying of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Abdel Rahman has bragged about issuing the fatwa that approved the killing. His fatwas calling on Muslims to murder Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, are numerous and notorious.
American immigration authorities permitted Abdel Rahman to settle in the United States in 1990, eventually giving him permanent residence status as a “religious worker,” even though his long history of inciting terror and his virulent anti-Americanism were well known — and even though his name appeared on U.S. terrorist watch lists.
I was the lead prosecutor at Abdel Rahman’s lengthy 1995 trial. A jury convicted him of conspiring to wage a war of urban terrorism against the United States, and of bombing conspiracy, solicitation of attacks on American military installations, and conspiring to murder — as well as soliciting the murder of — Mubarak. In January 1996, then–district judge (and later U.S. attorney general) Michael Mukasey sentenced Abdel Rahman to life imprisonment. The sheikh’s convictions and sentence were unanimously upheld on appeal. My book Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad details Abdel Rahman’s history and the investigation of the jihadist organization he built in the United States.
Egyptian Islamists have been agitating for Abdel Rahman’s release since we arrested him in New York City in July 1993. Some of this agitation has predictably crossed into barbarism. In 1997, Gama’at threatened to “target . . . all of those Americans who participated in subjecting [Abdel Rahman’s] life to danger” — “every American official, starting with the American president [down] to the despicable jailer.” The organization promised to do “everything in its power” to obtain his release. Six months later, Gama’at jihadists set upon 58 foreign tourists and several police officers at an archeological site in Luxor, Egypt, brutally shooting and slicing them to death. The terrorists left behind leaflets — including in the mutilated torso of one victim — demanding that the Blind Sheikh be freed.
Gama’at subsequently issued a statement warning that its forcible struggle against the Egyptian regime would proceed unless Mubarak met its three demands: the implementation of sharia, the cessation of diplomatic relations with Israel, and “the return of our Sheikh and emir to his land.” In March 2000, terrorists associated with the Abu Sayyaf group kidnapped a number of tourists in the Philippines and threatened to behead them if Abdel Rahman and two other convicted terrorists were not freed. Authorities later recovered two decapitated bodies (four other hostages were never accounted for).
On September 21, 2000, only three weeks before al-Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, al-Jazeera televised a “Convention to Support the Honorable Omar Abdel Rahman.” Front and center were Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (then bin Laden’s deputy, now his successor as emir of al-Qaeda). They warned that unless Sheikh Abdel Rahman was freed, jihadist attacks against the United States would be stepped up. At the same event, Mohammed Abdel Rahman, an al-Qaeda operative who is one of the sheikh’s sons, exhorted the crowd to “avenge your Sheikh” and “go to the spilling of blood.”
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the New York Post reported bin Laden’s proclamation that his war on America had been justified by a fatwa promulgated by Abdel Rahman from prison. Abdel Rahman had indeed issued a decree casting the fight for his release as an Islamic duty. Regarding Americans, the Blind Sheikh exhorted “Muslims everywhere to dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, . . . shoot down their planes, [and] kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.”
The Mubarak regime, of course, fell last year, after Obama — following some temporizing — called for the Egyptian president to step down. Egypt is currently run by a military council, although it is transitioning to an overtly Islamist government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists won about 80 percent of the parliamentary seats in just-completed national elections — an outcome the Obama administration has said it welcomes.
Tuesday’s al-Arabiya story portrays the Blind Sheikh’s potential release and repatriation as an offer by the Obama administration, not a demand by Egypt’s interim government. But there have been many such demands from Egyptian sources. They have increased in number since last year’s revolt, and have featured protests outside the American embassy in Cairo. Helping spearhead the effort has been Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the extremely influential Muslim Brotherhood jurist. Like the Blind Sheikh, the 85-year-old Qaradawi is an Egyptian alumnus of al-Azhar who fled the secular regime and is regarded by Muslim supremacists as a hero. The Egyptian press reports that, ever since the Americans were detained in December, Abdel Rahman’s family and supporters have aggressively pushed the government to barter them for the sheikh’s release.
According to the al-Arabiya report, which is entitled “Umar Abd-al-Rahman at Forefront of Egyptian-American Prisoner Exchange Deal,” Egypt’s interim rulers perceive the United States to be in a “weak position” because the 16 American prisoners were caught violating Egypt’s laws and sovereignty. Thus, according to Major General Muhammad Hani Zahir, who is described as an “expert” on terrorism matters, Egypt is in a position to “exploit” the situation and demand weighty concessions.
Zahir claims that the American activists provoked some of the violence in the Egyptian uprising, and that this offense is akin to terrorism support — a charge that can result in severe sentences in Egypt, just as it does in many American terrorism cases. Zahir thus speculates that the prospect of convictions on such extreme charges puts enormous pressure on Obama. Consequently, Zahir says, the Egyptian government is pulling together a list of all Egyptian nationals currently in American custody — intimating that the government’s demands could far outstrip the 50 prisoners the newspaper claims the U.S. has offered. It is worth noting that, besides Abdel Rahman, other convicted Egyptian terrorists serving life sentences in the U.S. include Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the 1993 WTC bombers.
It is important to stress that, while it appears the Americans are being freed, all we have at the moment to suggest an unsavory deal has been cut is a report in the Arabic press. Al-Arabiya is no fly-by-night operation, but neither is it immune to the Arab media’s penchant for sensationalism and conspiracy theories. The Obama administration has not publicly indicated any intention to resort to a prisoner swap to resolve the ongoing crisis over Egypt’s detention of Americans — let alone signaled that it would be open to releasing the Blind Sheikh in such a swap. The United States provides Egypt with billions in aid and obviously has many negotiating cards to play. There should be no need to entertain requests that convicted terrorists be released.
On the other hand, there are patent grounds for concern. While President Obama has at times been admirably aggressive in taking the fight to jihadists overseas, he has at other times lapsed into appeasement — and is especially cavalier when it comes to captured terrorists. His administration is currently trying to broker a peace deal with the Taliban and is reportedly contemplating the release of terrorists held at Gitmo in order to make it happen. The administration was pressured into releasing Binyam Mohammed, an al-Qaeda operative accused of plotting with convicted terrorist Jose Padilla to carry out a second round of post-9/11 attacks against American cities. It has participated in prisoner swaps that resulted in the release of terrorists complicit in the killing of U.S. soldiers — deals that violated longstanding American policy against negotiating with terrorists. And it has gone to great lengths to propitiate the Islamists who will soon be running Egypt — branding them as “largely secular” moderates, indicating a willingness to work with them, and remaining mum as their ascendancy has led to a campaign of violence against religious minorities.
For quite some time now, I’ve been concerned that President Obama might cave in to Egyptian pressure for Sheikh Abdel Rahman’s release. I’ve assumed, however, that the president’s political instincts rendered such a move inconceivable before the November election. In the interim, I’ve hoped that an engaged Republican opponent might highlight the matter, turning it into a campaign issue, pressing Obama for a public commitment that Abdel Rahman will not be released, period. To be sure, that would be an unenforceable promise, but one Obama could not break without severe political consequences.
Has the crisis involving Americans detained in Egypt changed those calculations? It is too early to tell, but not too early to be very worried.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.