Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Muslim cleric known as “the blind sheik” who was convicted of conspiracy in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and of planning a broader “war of urban terrorism” in the US, died on Saturday in a North Carolina prison, authorities said.
Abdel-Rahman, 78, died of natural causes at 9:40am at a medical center at a federal prison compound in Butner, North Carolina, spokesman Greg Norton said.
The cleric, who had diabetes and coronary artery disease, had been incarcerated at the complex for about 10 years, Norton said.
The Egyptian-born Abdel-Rahman remained a spiritual leader for radical Muslims even after more than 20 years in prison.
With his long gray beard, sunglasses and red and white clerical cap, the charismatic Abdel-Rahman was the face of radical Islam in the 1980s and 1990s. He preached a fiery brand of Islam that called for the death of people and governments he disapproved of and the installation of an Islamic government in Egypt. His following was tied to fundamentalist killings and bomb attacks around the world.
Abdel-Rahman, who was born in a village along the Nile on May 3, 1938, lost his eyesight due to childhood diabetes and grew up studying a Braille version of the Koran.
As an adult he became associated with the fundamentalist Islamic Group and was imprisoned and accused of issuing a fatwa leading to the 1981 assassination of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, against whom he had railed for years. The sheik said he was hung upside-down from the ceiling, beaten with sticks and given electric shocks while held, but he was eventually acquitted and went into self-imposed exile in 1990.
He managed to get to New York after the US embassy in Sudan granted him a tourist visa in 1990 — despite the fact that he was on the US Department of State list of people with ties to terror groups.
US authorities blamed a computer error for the visa, but the mistake was compounded in 1991 when Abdel-Rahman was given a green card and permanent US resident status.
The New York Times reported the CIA had approved the visa application for Abdel-Rahman, who had supported the anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
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