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Context of '1997-2002: ’Blind Sheikh’ Continues to Head Global Jihad Movement from Inside Maximum Security Prison'

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Members of Egyptian militant group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, whose spiritual head is the ‘Blind Sheikh,’ Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, hold a series of secret meetings with US officials at the American embassy in Cairo. The meetings are initiated by Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which wants to co-operate with the US, because it thinks the US is co-operating with and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. At the meetings, representatives of the group tell the US:
bullet Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya has between 150,000 and 200,000 members;
bullet One of the representatives at the meetings sat on Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s shura, or leadership council, between 1981 and 1988. The 11 members of the group’s shura are named at the meetings, as is its operational commander;
bullet Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya thinks highly of Saudi Arabian King Fahd, but believes he should take a stronger line against Iran. However, Abdul-Rahman met an Iranian delegation in Pakistan in autumn 1988;
bullet The group will not attack US diplomats;
bullet Abdul-Rahman travels to the US yearly, and also travels to Britain;
bullet The group is not as secret and violent as represented by the Egyptian government and has undergone a “change in thinking,” becoming concerned about its radical and violent image.
Embassy officials are skeptical about some of the claims, as the group’s representatives reveal more than the officials think is prudent. One year after the meetings, Abdul-Rahman will be issued a US visa by a CIA officer and move to the US (see July 1990). [US Embassy in Cairo, 4/25/1989 pdf file; US Embassy in Cairo, 5/3/1989 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, United States, Omar Abdul-Rahman, US Embassy in Cairo

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Lynne Stewart.Lynne Stewart. [Source: Robert Livingston/ public domain]The ‘Blind Sheikh,’ Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, who has been in a maximum security facility since his conviction on terrorism charges in the mid 1990s, communicates with his supporters through his legal team, radical attorney Lynne Stewart, paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar, and interpreter Mohamed Yousry. Abdul-Rahman, who is held at the Supermax prison in Colorado and then at a medical facility in Minnesota, has no access to the outside world except through the team and he uses them to pass on advice. Author Peter Bergen will comment: “Sheikh Abdul-Rahman’s incarceration has not prevented him from communicating important messages to his followers through his family or lawyers; for instance, in 1997 he endorsed a ceasefire between the Egyptian government and the terrorist Islamic Group. Then in 2000 Sheikh Abdul-Rahman publicly withdrew his support from that ceasefire.” In addition, his will, which appears in 1998 and urges attacks against the US, may also be smuggled out by his legal team (see May 1998). However, passing on such information during the thrice-yearly visits is against the rules agreed for the visits. Stewart, who attempts to distract the prison guards while Abdul-Rahman passes on the messages, will be indicted in 2002 and found guilty on several charges, including conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. She will be sentenced to 28 months in jail. [CounterPunch, 10/12/2002; Fox News, 2/11/2005; CNN, 2/14/2005; Bergen, 2006, pp. 208-9; National Review, 10/17/2006] In 2001, one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohand Alshehri, is reportedly seen near the Minnesota facility where Abdul-Rahman is being held (see August 2001).

Entity Tags: Omar Abdul-Rahman, Mohamed Yousry, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, Lynne Stewart

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A son of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the al-Qaeda leader convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up tunnels and other New York City landmarks, is heard to say that the best way to free his father from a US prison might be to hijack an American plane and exchange the hostages. This will be mentioned in President Bush’s August 2001 briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001). [Washington Post, 5/18/2002] It may be the warning was discovered by reporters at bin Laden’s press conference this month, since two of Abdul-Rahman’s sons are there and speak in belligerent tones (see May 26, 1998 and May 1998). A similar warning will be discovered in May 2001, but will not be mentioned in Bush’s briefing (see May 23, 2001).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, Al-Qaeda, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Mohammed Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The card containing Abdul-Rahman’s message.The card containing Abdul-Rahman’s message. [Source: Peter Bergen]Pakistani journalist Ismail Khan is given a copy of ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdul-Rahman’s purported will by one of his sons, while attending bin Laden’s first and only press conference in May 1998 (see May 26, 1998). Abdul-Rahman is serving life in prison in the US but his will anticipates that he will die soon from mistreatment. He says, “Extract the most violent revenge… Cut off all relations with [the Americans, Christians, and Jews], tear them to pieces, destroy their economies, burn their corporations, destroy their peace, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, and kill them on air, sea, and land. And kill them wherever you may find them, ambush them, take them hostage, and destroy their observatories. Kill these infidels.” Whether this will really was smuggled out of a US prison or not, the words will have a big impact for bin Laden’s followers and mark a dramatic increase in the violent rhetoric used by al-Qaeda. Ahmed Ressam, who will later be arrested for trying to bomb the Los Angeles airport, trains at the Khaldan training camp in mid-1998. He will later testify that this statement from Abdul-Rahman was widely distributed at the training camp. [Bergen, 2006, pp. 204-205] US intelligence is presumably aware of the purported will, since CNN will report about it later in 1998. [CNN, 11/8/1998] Journalist Peter Bergen, who is given a copy of the message around this time, will later comment that the message to “attack the US economy and American aviation was an important factor in the 9/11 attacks.… [His] fatwas are the nearest equivalent al-Qaeda has to an ex cathedra statement by the Pope.… [He] was able for the first time in al-Qaeda’s history to rule that it was legally permissible, and even desirable, to carry out attacks against American planes and corporations, exactly the type of attacks that took place on 9/11.” Bergen notes that while one cannot be certain if Abdul-Rahman actually wrote the message, in other cases his imprisonment did not prevent him from getting messages out through his family or lawyers. [Bergen, 2006, pp. 208-209]

Entity Tags: Mohammed Omar Abdul-Rahman, Ismail Khan, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, Ahmed Ressam, Peter Bergen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Top: Bin Laden, surrounded by security, walking to the press conference. Bottom: the three journalists attending the press conference sit next to bin Laden.Top: Bin Laden, surrounded by security, walking to the press conference. Bottom: the three journalists attending the press conference sit next to bin Laden. [Source: CNN]Bin Laden discusses “bringing the war home to America,” in a press conference from Khost, Afghanistan. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] Bin Laden holds his first and only press conference to help publicize the fatwa he published several months before. Referring to the group that signed the fatwa, he says, “By God’s grace, we have formed with many other Islamic groups and organizations in the Islamic world a front called the International Islamic Front to do jihad against the crusaders and Jews.” He adds later, “And by God’s grace, the men… are going to have a successful result in killing Americans and getting rid of them.” [CNN, 8/20/2002] He also indicates the results of his jihad will be “visible” within weeks. [US Congress, 7/24/2003] Two US embassies will be bombed in August (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Bin Laden sits next to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef during the press conference. Two Pakistani journalists and one Chinese journalist attends. But event never gets wide exposure because no independent videotaping is allowed (however, in 2002 CNN will obtain video footage of the press conference seized after the US conquered Afghanistan in late 2001). Pakistani journalist Ismail Khan attends and will later recall, “We were given a few instructions, you know, on how to photograph and only take a picture of Osama and the two leaders who were going to sit close by him. Nobody else.” Two sons of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman attend and distribute what they claim is the will or fatwa of their father (see May 1998), who has been sentenced to life in prison in the US. Journalist Peter Bergen will later comment that the significance of the sons’ presence at the press conference “can’t be underestimated” because it allows bin Laden to benefit from Abdul-Rahman’s high reputation amongst radical militants. Bergen also later says the press conference is a pivotal moment for al-Qaeda. “They’re going public. They’re saying, ‘We’re having this war against the United States.’” [CNN, 8/20/2002] The specific comment by bin Laden about “bringing the war home to America” will be mentioned in the August 2001 memo given to President Bush entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Ismail Khan, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, Mohammed Atef, Mohammed Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 hijackers have links to several people associated with “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdul-Rahman, the spiritual head of the group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Abdul-Rahman has been in prison since the mid-1990s.
bullet 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi attend a mosque in San Diego that is visited by an unnamed associate of Abdul-Rahman who is under investigation by the Los Angeles FBI (see June 1999-March 2000);
bullet The mosque is also attended by Osama Basnan, who threw a party for Abdul-Rahman in 1992 (see Spring 2000);
bullet 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta is seen with Adnan Shukrijumah, son of Abdul-Rahman’s former translator (see May 2, 2001) and Atta and hijacker Marwan Alshehhi may attend a mosque run by his father (see 2000-2001);
bullet Hijacker Mohand Alshehri is seen near the Minnesota clinic where Abdul-Rahman is being held (see August 2001);
bullet Some hijackers have the same mailing address as Abdul-Rahman and at least one of his associates (see Before September 11, 2001);
bullet Khalid Almihdhar and other hijackers obtain false ID cards from Mohamed el-Atriss, an associate of an unindicted co-conspirator at Abdul-Rahman’s trial (see (July-August 2001)); [Lance, 2006, pp. 373]
bullet In addition, people attending a Bronx mosque are warned to stay away from lower Manhattan on 9/11 (see Early September 2001).
In early 2000, the Able Danger data-mining program apparently identifies Atta, Alshehhi, Alhazmi, and Almihdhar as members of al-Qaeda through their associations with people linked to Abdul-Rahman (see January-February 2000).

Entity Tags: Mohamed el-Atriss, Adnan Shukrijumah, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Osama Basnan, Mohand Alshehri, Mohamed Atta, Nawaf Alhazmi, Marwan Alshehhi, Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mohand Alshehri.Mohand Alshehri. [Source: FBI]Hijacker Mohand Alshehri is apparently seen in a bar in Rochester, Minnesota, and is engaged in conversation with a woman there. Rochester is home to the Federal Medical Center prison, where the “Blind Sheikh,” Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, is held from 1998 to 2002. The hijackers have a number of tangential links to him (see Early 2000-September 10, 2001). The woman, Nancy Hanlon, often runs into Arabs at the bar, which is popular with Saudis receiving medical treatment nearby. Hanlon will later describe Alshehri as “young, dishevelled—and utterly despondent. He was slumped over a glass of beer… It was overwhelming—the despair that a person can give out! Out of every part of him. His face.” During their three-hour conversation Alshehri, who claims to be a pilot and produces a pilot’s ID, insists, “You are talking to a dead man. I don’t exist. I’m a ghost. I’m not even here, I’m dead… I’ve got myself into something there is no way out. There is no way out… It has been decided. He has decided it. It is done. It is finished.” However, he does brighten up a few times and says, “We are really going to show your country something. Something big. It’s going to be really big.” After 9/11, Hanlon apparently remains unaware of pictures showing Alshehri as one of the 9/11 hijackers. She goes to the FBI in 2002 and identifies Alshehri from a series of photographs. However, the FBI will say there is no reason to believe Alshehri ever visited Rochester. [Minneapolis St. Paul City Pages, 6/30/2004]

Entity Tags: Nancy Hanlon, Mohand Alshehri, Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The man in the picture on the left is supposed to be bin Laden in October 2001. The picture on the right is undisputendly bin Laden in DecemberThe man in the picture on the left is supposed to be bin Laden in October 2001. The picture on the right is undisputendly bin Laden in December [Source: Reuters]Following the release of a home video in which Osama bin Laden apparently confesses to involvement in 9/11 (see Mid-November 2001), some commentators question its authenticity, as a number of strange facts about the video soon emerge. For example, all previous videos had been made with the consent of bin Laden, and usually released to the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera. This video was supposedly recorded without his knowledge, found in a house in Afghanistan, and then passed to the CIA by an unknown person or group. Experts point out that it would be possible to fake such a video. So many people doubt the video’s authenticity that President Bush soon makes a statement, saying it was “preposterous for anybody to think this tape was doctored. Those who contend it’s a farce or a fake are hoping for the best about an evil man.” [Guardian, 12/15/2001] Some commentators will suggest that the person thought to be bin Laden is not actually the al-Qaeda leader. For example, arabist Kevin Barrett will say that the person in the video is “at least 40 or 50 pounds heavier, and his facial features [are] obviously different.” [Capital Times (Madison), 2/14/2006] The man said to be bin Laden also makes some questionable statements in the video:
bullet “I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building…” [US Department of Defense, 12/13/2001 pdf file] The jet fuel spilled from the planes burned up about 10 minutes after impact (see 8:57 a.m. September 11, 2001), the towers’ structure did not melt (see September 12, 2001-February 2002), and the towers were not made of iron, but steel. [National Institute of Standards and Technology, 9/2005, pp. 6] Bin Laden had studied civil engineering at university and had experience as a construction contractor. [Burke, 2004, pp. 47; Laden, 2005, pp. xii-xiii] It is unclear why he would think the towers were made of iron.
bullet “We did not reveal the operation to [the brothers who conducted the operation] until they are there and just before they boarded the planes.” [US Department of Defense, 12/13/2001 pdf file] All the hijackers purchased tickets for the 9/11 flights about two weeks in advance (see August 25-September 5, 2001). The six plot leaders had flight training (see July 6-December 19, 2000, (June 28-December 2000), January-February 2001, and May 5 and 10, 2000), and some of the other 13 are thought to have assisted with target surveillance and casing flights (see May 24-August 14, 2001, August 1, 2001, June 2001 and August 2001).
bullet “Those who were trained to fly didn’t know the others. One group of people did not know the other group.” [US Department of Defense, 12/13/2001 pdf file] The opposite is true: the pilots intermingled with the muscle and the teams for the various planes mixed (see April 23-June 29, 2001, April 12-September 7, 2001, and June 27-August 23, 2001).
There are reports that bin Laden had from four to ten look-alike doubles at the time. [Agence France-Presse, 10/7/2001; London Times, 11/19/2001]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Kevin Barrett, Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Ayman al-Zawahiri announcing a link-up between al-Qaeda and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.Ayman al-Zawahiri announcing a link-up between al-Qaeda and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. [Source: Al Jazeera]A man thought to be al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri releases a new video recording, which is aired on Al Jazeera. In the video he says that the Egyptian group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya has joined forces with al-Qaeda and the two will form “one line, facing its enemies.” The spiritual leader of Al-Gama is the “Blind Sheikh,” Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, currently in prison in the US on terror charges (see (April 25-May 1989) and 1997-2002). Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leader Mohamed Hakaima appears in the video and confirms the link-up. Before it was folded into al-Qaeda, Al-Zawahiri himself headed the Egyptian organization Islamic Jihad, which had sometimes worked with Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. However, Al-Gam’a al-Islamiyya, which renounced violence in 1998 following which hundreds of its members were released from jail, denies the alliance, and analysts say that Hakaima is not a top leader in the organization. It issues a statement in Egypt that “categorically denies” al-Zawahiri’s claims, and a former leader, Sheikh Abdel Akher Hammad, says, “If [some] brothers… have joined, then this is their personal view and I don’t think that most Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya members share that same opinion.” [CNN, 8/5/2006; Al Jazeera, 8/7/2006]

Entity Tags: Sheikh Abdel Akher Hammad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda, Mohamed Hakaima, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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