Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheik convicted of plotting terror attacks in the United States in the 1990s, died Saturday in a federal prison where he was serving a life sentence. He was 78.
Abdel-Rahman died at 5:40 a.m. after suffering from diabetes and coronary artery disease, said Kenneth McKoy at the Federal Correction Complex in Butner, North Carolina. The inmate had been at the complex for seven years.
The cleric’s daughter, Asmaa, announced the death in a series of Arabic-language tweets: ‘‘We are saddened by your departure, father,’’ she wrote.
Abdel-Rahman was a key spiritual leader for a generation of Islamic militants and became a symbol for radicals during two decades in American prisons.
Blind since infancy from diabetes, Abdel-Rahman was the leader of one of Egypt’s most feared militant groups, the Gamaa Islamiya, which led a campaign of violence aimed at bringing down ex-President Hosni Mubarak.
Abdel-Rahman fled Egypt to the U.S. in 1990 and began teaching in a New Jersey mosque. A circle of his followers were convicted in the Feb. 26, 1993, truck bombing of New York’s World Trade Center that killed six people — eight years before al-Qaida’s suicide plane hijackers brought the towers down.
Later in 1993, Abdel-Rahman was arrested by authorities who accused him and others of conspiring to wage a string of bombings against the United Nations and other New York landmarks, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
But since his imprisonment, Abdel-Rahman’s influence had been seen more as symbolic than that of a practical leader. His Gamaa Islamiya, which led a wave of violence in the 1990s, was crushed a decade ago, and its leaders, jailed in Egypt, declared a truce.
Abdel-Rahman’s activities pre-dated Osama bin Laden’s formation of al-Qaida in the late 1990s. But he was an influential figure in the generation of Islamic extremists that emerged from Egypt over the past two decades.
While Abdel-Rahman was the spiritual leader of Gamaa Islamiya, his longtime associate from Egyptian militant circles, Ayman al-Zawahri, was a leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, whose experienced fighters he later allied with bin Laden’s riches to form al-Qaida. Al-Zawahri is now leader of al-Qaida.
The two groups shared an ideology rejecting the governments of Egypt and other Arab countries as infidels that must be brought down by force. Between 1990 and 1996, they carried out a wave of attacks on Western tourists, Egyptian police and Coptic Christians until a heavy-handed government crackdown largely shattered them.
Throughout his militant activities, however, Abdel-Rahman was faced by rejection by some fundamentalists, who argued that Islamic law forbids a blind man from being a commander.
Born in the Egyptian Nile Delta village of al-Gamalia in 1938, Abdel-Rahman was blind by the age of 10 months. Still, he said in his autobiography that he memorized Islam’s holy book, the Quran, by age 11.
He attended Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a center of Islamic scholarship and then began preaching as an imam in a mosque in the oasis of Fayyoum, an agricultural area just south of Cairo.
He quickly ran into trouble as he turned toward a radical ‘‘takfir’’ ideology — a radical interpretation of Islam that holds that those who don’t follow a strict version of Islamic Sharia law are ‘‘kafirs’’ or ‘‘infidels.’’
After the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970, he told followers not to pray for the soul of the leader of secular Arab nationalism because he was an infidel. That got him eight months in prison.
After the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants, Abdel-Rahman was jailed and accused of sanctioning the killing. He was later acquitted. He escaped several later scrapes with the courts — acquitted in 1984 of plotting to overthrow the government and in 1989 of sparking anti-government protests in Fayyoum.
In 1989, after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for the death of British writer Salman Rushdie, Abdel-Rahman issued a similar fatwa ordering the death of Egyptian Nobel-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz for writings some Muslims considered blasphemous. Mahfouz, who died in late 2006, was stabbed in 1994 by a radical who said he was following Abdel-Rahman’s edict.
Before moving to the U.S., Abdel-Rahman travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he became a spiritual leader for the mujahedeen, then fighting Soviet troops with help from the Central Intelligence Agency.
Abdel-Rahman arrived in the United States in 1990, even though he was on a list of suspected terrorists and thus banned from the country. He was given permanent residence status under the name Omar Ahmed Ali.
Abdel-Rahman had two wives and 13 children.
Melley reported from Los Angeles and Keath reported from Cairo. Hamza Hendawi contributed from Cairo.