Oct. 1 — With his fiery tirades against the West, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman once had a following of hundreds of thousands of people across southern Egypt, and his religious declarations became a call-to-arms for fundamentalist Muslim militants. Now, while he serves a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison in Springfield, Mo., for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, most people in his hometown, Fayoum—two hours outside of Cairo—are afraid to talk about him, and the tiny mosque where he once preached is sparsely attended.
RAHMAN’S FAMILY—his two wives and seven children—live in two crumbling apartments nearby. One of the boys answered my knock on the downstairs door, and while his mother was in the next room putting on a black garment that left only a slit for her eyes, he offered me a glass of Pepsi. “It is sweeter than Coca-Cola,” he said.
The only decoration in the room was a mirror and a verse from the Koran. His 56-year-old mother, A’isha Hassan Mohamed, invited me into the sheik’s office, hard seats arranged around his simple desk, with bookcases overhead and his various diplomas on the wall. She described her 63-year-old husband—who has diabetes and who has been blind since infancy—as very ill, worn down by his years in prison, an image in sharp contrast to that of some terrorism experts, who say his religious decrees still carry influence among his followers.
Outside the country, of course, is another story. The sheik’s wife offered this commentary about the attacks in New York and Washington: “Honestly, we were pleased in the beginning because this happened in America, which treats us with arrogance. It doesn’t have sympathy towards us. Its attention is always directed toward the good of Israel. Later on, we heard more about innocent people being killed and we started thinking that although this is the will of Allah, the civilians did nothing to be punished for. It is the American administration that we hate and not individuals. We like American people and Sheik Omar went to the American people. But what shall we say now? It is the will of God.”
She says Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks, and Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban are innocent, but the attack destroyed her hopes that her husband may ever be released. Since the conviction, she has visited him just once, in 1999. He is granted almost no contact with other prisoners, and he is allowed to call her once a month.
She recently sold land he owned in order to pay the bills. “The sheik is innocent,” she said. “He was arrested because he is a symbol of Islam and because he was calling on people there to believe in Islam. He did nothing. What is happening to America now is due to its meanness. This must be a result of the sheik’s prayers day and night to God to punish America.” She added: “Muslims should not wait to see what America will do. Muslims should all unite. There has to be a state of mobilization. Women should pray and men should go for jihad with everything they own. Everyone has to defend Islam. Everyone has to attack!”
Two of her sons have been in Afghanistan since 1989, when their father sent them to join the Islamic guerrilla fighters known as the mujahedin. They were 14 and 15 at the time. “He prepared them for their trip,” their mother recalled. “They were too young to have their own passports, so they traveled with my passport to Pakistan. At this time, the Sheik was in Saudi Arabia. He went to Pakistan and he met them at the airport. The authorities at the airport refused in the beginning to allow them in since they thought they were very young for jihad, but their father sent someone who explained that they were the sons of Omar Abdel Rahman, and they were immediately admitted into the country. Later, they were escorted to Afghanistan. They call me once every six months.”
The sons still with her—all aged between 14 and 20 and wearing thin mustaches—are students now, though one day, they said, they may follow the path of their two older brothers. “I wish that all of them would become soldiers of Islam who will defend their religion from all enemies,” said their mother. “Even if all my sons [are] killed in the jihad, I’ll be pleased. They would be martyrs.”
One son, Hassan, the 20-year-old with Nike flip-flops, joined in: “Now we are students. We have to finish school before we think of this.”
With Gameela Ismail in Fayoum, Egypt
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
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