Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s National Security Analyst and the author of “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” which this article draws upon in part.
On Saturday, Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman died in an American prison
Peter Bergen: Rahman was the inspiration behind some of the worst modern terrorist attacks, including 9/11
Bergen: His death will almost certainly spark calls from al Qaeda leaders for further anti-American attacks
Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric who inspired terrorist plots in New York during the early 1990s and who died in an American prison on Saturday, was also the spiritual guide of key 9/11 plotters.
More specifically, he was the source of a laminated card of Arabic script that is critical to understanding why nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The Arabic on the card reads: “A fatwa [religious ruling] of the captive Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman … To all Muslims everywhere: Destroy their countries. [The Americans, Jews and Christians]. Tear them to pieces. Destroy their economies, burn their corporations, destroy their businesses, sink their ships and bring down their airplanes. Kill them in the sea, on land and in the air.”
The author, who was jailed for life in 1996 for his role in terrorist conspiracies in New York, signed the fatwa: “Your brother Abdel Rahman, from inside American prisons.” Explaining that his instructions were his final will and testament, he ordered his followers to: “Take my revenge on [the Americans] and do not let my blood be wasted in vain.”
The fatwa was first publicly distributed by the leadership of al Qaeda at an extraordinary press conference in Afghanistan in May 1998. But its significance to the terrorist organization has largely gone unremarked.
Sheikh Rahman’s fatwa was the first time that anyone associated with al Qaeda had given religious sanction to attacks on American aviation, shipping and economic targets. The fatwa, with its exhortations to “bring down their airplanes,” “burn their corporations” and “sink their ships,” would turn out to be a slowly ticking time bomb that would explode first on October 12, 2000, when a suicide attack blew a hole the size of a small house in the USS Cole in Yemen, and then again with even greater ferocity on 9/11.
The cleric’s spiritual authority
To understand the significance of the fatwa, you have to understand the spiritual authority that its author, the militant cleric, exercised over al Qaeda. That terror group was led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri, but neither of them had any standing as religious scholars.
Sheikh Rahman had a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Harvard of Islamic thought. He also had a long history of guiding terrorist groups. Rahman had long been the spiritual guide of Egypt’s two most violent terrorist organizations, members of which later occupied senior leadership positions within al Qaeda.
The special reverence that al Qaeda had for Sheikh Rahman was underlined by a two-hour propaganda videotape that the group’s media division released in the spring of 2001, when the 9/11 attacks were in their final planning phase. Half way though the tape, in a segment entitled “Reasons,” bin Laden explained why Muslims should wage a holy war against the United States.
Over a picture of Sheikh Rahman, bin Laden fumed, “He is a hostage in an American jail. We hear he is sick, and the Americans are treating him badly.” Rahman is the only religious figure mentioned in the course of the two-hour videotape.
Indeed, the American incarceration of Sheikh Rahman was a hot-button issue for al Qaeda for many years. In 1997, during his first television interview, bin Laden told CNN that “Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman is a Muslim scholar well-known all over the Muslim world. He represents the kind of injustice that is adopted by the US. A baseless case was fabricated against him even though he is a blind old man … The US sentenced him to hundreds of years … He is now very badly treated.”