The blind sheik, convicted of orchestrating the deadly World Trade Center bombing 20 years ago, has benefited from a sophisticated social media messaging machine despite serving life in prison in a solitary confinement cell in North Carolina.
And federal authorities can’t do anything to stop Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman because his family is running the show on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and a website hosted in the United States – and there’s nothing illegal in the content of the sites’ messages.
The various social media channels are keeping his devoted followers connected to his Islamist teachings and calls from extremists to have him released from prison.
Abdel-Rahman’s sons, along with other devoted followers, run the operations from Egypt, and his official website, Sheikh-omar.com, is hosted by a server company operating in Chicago, according to a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute. MEMRI is a respected nonprofit, nonpartisan website that covers the Middle East and terrorism issues and hosts the archives of the late congressman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., one of the country’s premier experts on foreign policy.
The report, written by Steven Stalinsk, details all the blind sheik’s multimedia pages available to the public on the Internet. Abdel-Rahman’s official website has nearly 8,000 people who have signed a petition seeking his release and was created June 24, 2010. It includes updates on the blind sheik, as well as his group Gama’at al-Islamia, the report says.
The Facebook page also includes video footage of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri endorsing last year the kidnapping of Americans overseas. Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden after U.S. officials killed the al-Qaida founder in Pakistan in 2011.
Abdel-Rahman was spiritual leader of Gama’at al-Islamia, an Egyptian group whose name translates to “Islamic Group,” which is designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. The group has formed a political party that is now part of Egypt’s governing coalition. His sons belong to the organization, according to the MEMRI report. The Washington Guardian made numerous efforts to reach the sons via telephone, email and social media but received no response.
“The site, which is administrated by one of his sons, Ammar Omar Abdel- Rahman, provides breaking news and current events from the Middle East, such as the Algerian hostage crisis, as well as recent updates regarding the status of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman,” Stalinsk writes.
“It also includes a long list of publications in support of the Blind Sheikh and advocating for his release. On the main page’s right sidebar are links to old audio recordings by the Blind Sheikh , as well as articles, various publications, and images of him.”
There are no direct posts by the sheik but his son has uploaded many of his father’s old videos, speeches and pictures, according to the website.
Abdel-Rahman’s main website is hosted at SingleHop, in Chicago, Ill., according to dawhois.com, a website that registers servers and domains. Numerous phone calls made to SingleHop for comment were not returned.
Abdel-Rahman’s website provides contact information, including an email address in his son’s name, an address that is no longer valid. The telephone numbers are in operation but there was no answer when the Washington Guardian contacted them.
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said that Abdel-Rahman has “no open access to the Internet” and all of his correspondence is thoroughly monitored. Burke said he could not give information on who visits him in prison or whether his sons have contacted him.
However, Abdel-Rahman’s former defense attorney, Lynn Stewart, now 73, began serving a 10-year prison sentence in 2010 after being convicted of passing messages from Rahman’s prison cell to members of Gama’at al-Islamia in Egypt. Stewart, who is serving her sentence in Texas, has always declared her innocence and supporters have petitioned the U.S. government for her release.
Abdel-Rahman was arrested by the FBI in Brooklyn, New York on charges he orchestrated the March 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that left six dead and more than 1,000 injured.
In 1995, a federal jury also convicted Rahman of participating in a seditious conspiracy, saying he had plans beyond the World Trade Center. Federal authorities said he was also planning to kill then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarakduring a visit to the United Nations, bomb the federal building in Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel.
Jarret Brachman, an internationally recognized counterterrorism expert and former analyst with the CIA, told the Washington Guardian that Ammar has been “tirelessly spearheading a campaign to rehabilitate the image of his father.”
Senior jihadist leaders have taken notice of Ammar and his mission to set his father free. They “have called for the Blind Sheik’s freedom among their own extremist ranks,” Brachman said.
By “leveraging social media, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, a home page dedicated to his father, a flurry of media interviews and high-profile demonstrations, Ammar has been trying to convince Egyptians that the Arab Spring cannot be complete until his father is released from American prison,” Brachman added.
The MEMRI report comes amid numerous requests from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to the United States to release Rahman from U.S. Bureau of Prisons medical facility in Butner, N.C.
It also coincides with recent al-Qaida threats against the U.S. and demands to have Rahman released from prison. On Sept.10, 2012, al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a statement demanding that the U.S. release Rahman, and in January Algerian Islamists who took over a natural gas plant said they would release two American hostages in exchange for the blind sheik.
State Department officials said in January that there are no plans to release the sheik from prison or transfer him to Egypt.
Morsi told reporters in January that he would ask Obama for Rahman’s release on humanitarian grounds when he visits the United States.
Now in his mid-70s and suffering from diabetes, the sheikh is said to be in poor health.
A U.S. official, with knowledge of al-Qaida’s media operations, told the Washington Guardian that terrorist organizations are looking for “young savvy Internet media-capable recruits because their propaganda operations are not only used to communicate with one another but to recruit new followers into the fold, some that operate as lone wolfs against western interests.”
U.S. officials closely monitor sites frequented by suspected or known terrorists. FBI officials would not comment on Rahman’s online presence.
The U.S. official, however, said that nothing can be done to legally remove a site from the Internet unless there is a direct terror threat made by those running the site, or if the operators are directly linked to a terrorist organization.
“It’s very difficult to monitor everything,” the official said. “There is also protection – people have the right to say they want to free the blind sheik – but it’s a fine line.”
Abdel-Rahman’s official website also has a private “members only” log-in page, which can be used to pass private messages, the U.S. official added.
This main website also includes calls from members of Gama’a Al-Islamiya, as well as al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to release Rahaman.
The website also has links to his Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages, as well as one from Gama’a Al-Islamiya.
The sheik’s Facebook Page has nearly 5,000 likes. Abdel-Rahman’s page has nine videos, including a video released last September of al-Zawahiri demanding the U.S. release Rahman from prison and threatening that a kidnapped American would not be released until the demand is met – and calling on jihadists to kidnap more Americans.
“By the grace of Allah, have announced that we will not release the American captive Warren Weinstein, Allah willing, until the Crusaders release our captives,” Zawahiri says in the video, which is posted on the site. Weinstein is a U.S. contractor who was kidnapped in 2011 in Pakistan.
Zawahiri’s youngest brother, Mohamed al-Zawahiri, called Rahman the “godfather of all Islamic movements,” when he was released from prison in Egypt last year. “Maybe if he was not going through such injustice, 9/11 would not have happened,” the younger Zawahiri said.
The sheik’s YouTube page, operated by his sons, was “launched on August 2, 2011; as of January 15, 2013, this page had eight videos, 46 subscribers , and 14,613 views,” the site shows.
Another YouTube account in the name of the blind sheik’s son “Ammar Omar Abdel-Rahman” is also used as a platform to support his father, with more than 160,000 views. The son also has a Twitter account with 84 followers .