The Blind Sheikh Comes to America
From 1993 to 1996, Andrew C. McCarthy was an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. During this period, he led the prosecution of those responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the subsequent plot to attack a number of New York City landmarks.
McCarthy's efforts would ultimately focus on one of the leading figures in radical Islamism: an Egyptian cleric named Omar Abdel Rahman. Known as the "Blind Sheikh", Rahman was, incredibly, allowed to come to the United States in July 1990 and took up residence in Jersey City, New Jersey. His open incitement to violence was instrumental in motivating those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other acts of violence.
In a terrific essay from the March 2008 issue of Commentary, McCarthy describes how Rahman sought to inspire a campaign of terror in the heart of the "fiercest enemy of Islam":
Omar Abdel Rahman’s arrival in New York in July 1990 lit a fuse to the city’s nascent but already functioning jihadist community. He went to work right away. It was time, the sheikh exhorted his flock in Brooklyn and Jersey City, to stop pretending that the challenge for Muslims lay elsewhere in the world. The challenge lay right here in the United States. This country, he preached, was “the big evil,” the “fiercest enemy of Islam,” and the real power behind not only the Middle East interloper Israel but such secular Islamic governments as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.
Sheikh Omar pilloried his followers for their empty talk, talk, talk about jihad. He wanted the real thing. A tireless booster of Hamas and of the effort to funnel funds to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he traveled the world to raise money and fighters for the Afghan mujahideen and for militant Muslims in Bosnia.
In his exhortations to his American followers, the blind sheikh cautioned against recklessness. “Child’s play,” he counseled, was to be avoided, and resources should be marshaled for deeds of greater impact. Next to the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, his favorite example of an effective jihadist operation was Hizballah’s strike against the United States Marines in Lebanon in 1983. But the main point was this: one way or another, it was time to wage jihad in, and against, America.
Among those listening closely to Abdel Rahman’s words was a thirty-four-year-old Egyptian-born immigrant named Sayyid Nosair. An engineer by education and by trade, Nosair was now working as a maintenance technician at the criminal court in lower Manhattan. More significantly, he was already known in jihadist circles as the “emir of marksmanship,” working to build the Egyptian sheikh’s American cell.
It was Nosair who would inaugurate Rahman's jihad in the New York area. He would do so by murdering someone whom Rahman wanted silenced: the radical Jewish zealot and bigot Meir Kahane:
During October and November 1990, Kahane embarked on a speaking tour of the United States. On the evening of November 5, he appeared in a ballroom at the Marriott Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Fifty or sixty people were in attendance for the two-hour lecture, including Nosair and two associates: Mohammed Salameh and Bilal Alkasi.
At the conclusion of his speech, Kahane mingled with audience members near the podium. Nosair approached, concealing a .357 magnum Sturm Ruger revolver, fully loaded with hollow-point rounds, its barrel shortened, the sight filed down (to avoid inadvertent hooking on clothing at the moment of truth), and the serial number obliterated—the trademarks of an assassin. Worming his way into a small knot of people, Nosair suddenly drew from a distance of about seven feet, pumping two shots into Kahane and killing him instantly.
In the aftermath, Abdel Rahman refrained from telling his followers outright that he had authorized the murder, but he boldly declared that to have issued a fatwa calling for Kahane’s death would have been “an honor. . . . We ask Allah . . . that we be worthy to issue a fatwa to kill tyrants, oppressors, and infidels.”
It is sadly fitting that the first act of Rahman-inspired terrorism in America would be an act of murderous censorship, for he would also instigate several such acts in his native Egypt. In 1989, when asked a question about Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, Rahman replied that if only Egyptian Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz had been "punished" for writing his 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi, Rushdie would "never have dared to write that book." In Cairo in 1994, a follower of Rahman's would stab Mahfouz in the neck and seriously injure him. Just as in the case of Meir Kahane, Rahman would deny direct responsibility for the attempt on Mahfouz's life, but his intentions had been made abundantly clear to his followers.
Two years previously, secular Egyptian intellectual Farag Foda had been murdered by two members of Rahman's Egyptian terror organization, al-Jama'at al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group).
Ultimately, McCarthy would succeed in persuading a New York jury to hold the Blind Sheikh accountable for his role in bringing Islamist terrorism to their city. In 1995, Rahman would be sentenced to life in prison. Unfortunately, as McCarthy discusses with obvious frustration, numerous clues were missed in the Kahane investigation that could have prevented the 1993 WTC attack had they only been followed up. In particular, the crime was seen as the act of a lone fanatic and not part of a broader network that reserved the right to murder anyone whose views they despised.
This is one of the forgotten lessons of the story of Omar Abdel Rahman. His career shows quite clearly that radical Islamism's murderous campaign against intellectual freedom is inseparable from its broader jihad against infidels and apostates. For Rahman, there was no essential difference between the ultra-Zionist fanatic Kahane, the novelist Mahfouz and the secular intellectual Foda. They were all enemies who needed to be silenced by what George Bernard Shaw has called the "ultimate form of censorship".