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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Thursday, June 14, 2007

U.S. Secretly Met With Followers of Blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman Before Controversial Visa Application

By J.M. Berger

Followers of Omar Abdel Rahman made overtures to U.S. diplomats one year before the radical sheikh entered the United States on a visa approved by a CIA agent.

During several meetings with diplomatic officers at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group) provided extensive details about the operations of one of Egypt's most notorious terrorist organizations.

Initiated by al-Gama'a, the meetings were aimed at creating a dialogue with the U.S. in the hopes of eventual, unspecified cooperation. The initiative was based on a perception that the U.S. enjoyed similar cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Less than four years after the approach, an al-Gama'a terror cell led personally by Abdel-Rahman bombed the World Trade Center in New York City.

The 1989 meetings are described in secret cables from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which were declassified and released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by INTELWIRE.


Click here for document (PDF)

An April 25, 1989 cable from the Cairo embassy describes several meetings between unidentified "embassy officers" and a self-proclaimed member of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya. The name of the member is redacted, as are several other sections of the cable.

Signed by U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, the cable is addressed to several other U.S. embassies and to U.S. intelligence services and military posts. An ambassador's name is often used on cables written by other embassy offices. Contacted by INTELWIRE, Wisner said he was not aware that any meetings with Rahman's people had taken place. The cable was classified as "secret."

Known as the "blind sheik," Rahman was considered the main spiritual guide for both al-Gama'a and al-Jihad, otherwise known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. At the time of the meeting, Rahman was under detention in Egypt but was expected to be released shortly.

In meetings with embassy officials, the member said al-Gama'a and al-Jihad were, in fact, the same organization. Historically, the two groups have had overlapping membership and agendas. Today, they are considered separate organizations, and Al-Gama'a has renounced the use of violence.

The member estimated al-Gama'a membership as between 150,000 and 200,000, a figure which the embassy suspected was exaggerated.

The member said he was part of al-Gama'a Shura Council while he was in prison, between September 1981 and October 1988. He said his specialty was organizing protests and demonstrations. The member disputed government characterizations of al-Gama'a as "secret" and "violent" and disavowed attacks that had been attributed to the group.

The member provided printed material concerning Rahman and al-Gama'a beliefs and goals. He said the group found the government of Saudi Arabia to be "the best Islamic government today" but faulted Saudi King Fahd for failing to take a hard line against Iran.

However, the member said, Rahman met with an Iranian delegation in Pakistan during the autumn of 1988 and was "favorably impressed."

Rahman also traveled to the United States in 1988 to speak a conference, the member said. The "blind sheikh" traveled to the U.S. yearly, the member said, on trips supported by Saudi Arabia.

Embassy officials were skeptical about some of the claims made by the member and recorded their suspicions concerning his motives, as well as questioning whether his approach to the embassy had the blessing of his superiors in al-Gama'a.

Embassy officials noted that their skepticism "leaps instantly from the fact that he has revealed much more than we would have considered prudent."


Click here for document (PDF)

In May, embassy officials met with "a young lawyer of 'The Islamic Group' (or Jihad as it is called by the government)." The meeting came after "repeated recent contacts" between al-Gama'a and U.S. diplomats, the cable states.

The May cable is addressed only to the Secretary of State, the consul in Alexandria and the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. It is signed by Wisner and classified "secret" and "department only."

The lawyer repeated the figure of 150,000 to 200,000 members and reiterated other key points from the April cable. Embassy officers believed this figure included a loose group of "sympathizers" and did not "represent an Islamic revolutionary vanguard."

He claimed "he was informing us about his group as a result of a 'change in thinking' within the group."

Al-Gama'a was "concerned about the 'radical and violent image' of the group presented by the government," according to the lawyer.

The laywer said an individual, whose name was redacted, "had persuaded them that U.S. diplomats were 'sincere,' so they decided to present this 'true picture' directly to" embassy officers. It's not clear whether this is a reference to the individual described in the April cable, or whether that individual and the lawyer are the same person.

The cable states:

"[redacted] had told us separately that [redacted] had opined that the government was not persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood because the U.S. was 'supporting' the Muslim Brotherhood against the more radical Islamic trends. On this widely accepted conspiratorial premise, the 'Islamic Group' may be making its own bid for outside support."

An embassy officer told the lawyer that "the U.S. does not intervene in internal affairs nor support any group of any sort against the government of Egypt."

Among the points and claims made by the lawyer:

  • Members of al-Gama'a are "unified in a single ideology, though there are different 'styles' of action from region to region."

  • Members can directly contact other members across Egypt.

  • Omar Abdel-Rahman was described as the mufti of the group, or alternatively as its emir. The former title is a religious position, the latter implies some degree of operational control. However, a separate individual was identified as the chief operational leader. The name of that person is redacted.

  • The 11 members of al-Gama'a Shura Council were named by the lawyer, but the names were redacted from the cable before its release by the State Department.

  • The lawyer characterized other known Egyptian Islamist groups as having been disbanded or largely imprisoned, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Takfir Wal Hijra. Later reporting suggests this claim was significantly inflated.

  • The Muslim Brotherhood was seen by al-Gama'a as part of the "governing establishment."

  • Al-Gama'a members "reject the concept of 'takfir,'" i.e., condemning opponents such as the government as infidels who may be attacked with impunity.

  • The lawyer claimed the Egyptian government had "pinned" the name Jihad on al-Gama'a in order to blame the group for attacks on Christians. The laywer denied al-Gama'a had any role in attacking Christian interests in Egypt.

  • The laywer accused the Muslim Brotherhood of "playing games" and acting out of personal and property interests.

  • "Local groups of Islamic youth exist around the country," according to the lawyer. "Because they lack proper religious guidance, they do crazy things" which are then blamed on al-Gama'a. However some of these youth are also members of al-Gama'a, he conceded.

  • Sayyid Qutb and his books are the group's primary ideological inspiration, particularly his anti-secular (and anti-American) tract "Milestones on the Road."

    The cable concludes with a reference to a follow-up cable describing the organization's ties to foreign governments. However, the follow-up cable was not included in this FOIA release.

    THE 1990 VISA

    In May 1990, approximately one year after the second meeting in Egypt, Omar Abdel Rahman obtained a visa to enter the United States (Time Magazine, May. 24, 1993). The visa was issued in by the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, Sudan.

    Rahman's name had been placed on a terrorist watchlist that should have kept him out of the United States. Embassy officials said the visa was issued in error and began an investigation of the embassy official who approved the passport.

    That official turned out to be an officer of the CIA (New York Times, July 14, 1993). According to the Times, the CIA officer was working as a consular official as part of his official cover and did not act on behalf of the CIA. Officials described the event as a "coincidence," according to the Times.

    Rahman traveled from Sudan to Pakistan, then entered the U.S. in July 1990. He was subsequently indicted and convicted for leading a cell of terrorists in New York City responsible for the World Trade Center bombing and a thwarted "Day of Terror" plot in which several New York landmarks were targeted for simultaneous truck bombings.

    INTELWIRE has obtained more than 1,400 pages of declassified U.S. State Department documents concerning Egyptian radical groups. For more information about INTELWIRE research services, please contact J.M. Berger.

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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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