Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a.k.a. the blind sheikh, was, in an important sense, the ideological architect or the spiritual guide of 9/11. Rahman’s directives made their appearance at an unusual event held at one of bin Laden’s bases in eastern Afghanistan on May 26, 1998, the first, and last, press conference ever given by Al Qaeda’s leaders. “I could see a plume of dust coming, then I saw three cars coming, and these hooded guys escorting Osama,” recalls a journalist who attended. Bin Laden sat down at a table with his lieutenants and spoke of good things to come. Eleven weeks later, two U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed within ten minutes of each other. At the time, Sheikh Rahman was in federal prison in Minnesota for his role in inspiring plots to attack Manhattan landmarks including the United Nations building. But two of his sons were at the press conference. One of them said that “the U.S. prison authorities are not treating Father well … They are killing him slowly.”
The sons also passed out a colorful plastic laminated card of Arabic script with a picture of a Muslim cleric praying in a prison cell. It proclaims: “A fatwa of the captive Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman … To all Muslims everywhere: Destroy their countries. 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 fatwa was signed, “Your brother Abdel Rahman, from inside American prisons.” It was the first by a religious scholar calling for attacks inside America and led directly to 9/11.
Peter Bergen, CNN’s national-security analyst, produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden, in 1997. His most recent book is The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda.