The investigation into the exact circumstances that brought us the twin attacks on U.S. diplomats in Egypt and Libya remains ongoing. Much remains uncertain. But a few new press accounts provide clues that are worth noting. And those clues point to a possible motive for the anti-American rallies and violence that has little to do with an offensive anti-Islam film.
It seems that bad actors in both Egypt and Libya decided to agitate for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh.” This is a longstanding cause for al Qaeda and other militants – even though it is inconceivable that Rahman will be released and terrorism on his behalf is itself, in many ways, a pretext.
Rahman is a widely revered character in jihadist circles, having issued fatwas that repeatedly led to terrorism. Osama bin Laden credited Rahman, a long-time friend and ally of al Qaeda’s deceased master, with issuing the fatwa that condoned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Rahman is serving a life sentence in an American prison for his role in 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which prefigured 9/11, and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks. Rahman’s spiritual guidance directed those terrorists.
According to USA Today, the protest outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was initially planned by Gamaa Islamiya (known as the IG), in which Sheikh Rahman was a top leader. USA Today reports:
The protest was planned by Salafists well before news circulated of an objectionable video ridiculing Islam's prophet, Mohammed, said Eric Trager, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was announced Aug. 30 by [G]amaa Islamiya, a State Department-designated terrorist group, to protest the ongoing imprisonment of its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman. He is serving a life sentence in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Then on Monday, Trager says, Mohammed al Zawahiri (brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri) tweeted that “people should go to the embassy and ‘defend the prophet.’” Mohammed al Zawahiri, who was present at the assault on the embassy in Cairo, also claims that he helped arrange the protest.
Here is an additional observation about the Zawahiri family’s ties to these events: Ayman al Zawahiri himself made a reference to Sheikh Rahman in his September 10 eulogy of top al Qaeda operative Abu Yahya al Libi, who was killed in June. Ayman al Zawahiri’s relationship with the Blind Sheikh is decades-old at this point, as the two worked closely together throughout their early terrorist careers. Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) has long partnered with Rahman’s Gamaa Islamiya to execute attacks.
In his video, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, Zawahiri says:
And we, 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 including Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui.
Weinstein is an American contractor who was kidnapped by an al Qaeda-linked group in Pakistan in 2011 and is currently held prisoner by al Qaeda. Aafia Siddiqui is known as “Lady Al Qaeda” for her work on behalf of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s network of terrorists and is imprisoned in the U.S.
Then there is this video clip from MEMRI which shows Egyptian Salafists protesting for Rahman’s release yesterday, September 11. MEMRI also reports that, on September 7, a “prominent writer” on a jihadist forum suggested “burning down the U.S. embassy in Egypt with all workers inside in order to pressure the U.S. to release” Rahman. The post was titled, “How can the U.S. embassy remain in Egypt while [the U.S.] imprisons Sheikh 'Omar 'Abd Al-Rahman.”
Turning to the attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya, CNN reports:
The group suspected to be behind the assault — the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades — first surfaced in May, when it claimed responsibility for an attack on the International Red Cross office in Benghazi. The following month the group claimed responsibility for detonating an explosive device outside the U.S. Consulate, and later released a video of that attack.
It is certainly curious that there is a possible connection to the Blind Sheikh in both the Egyptian and Libyan attacks.
It is worth remembering that al Qaeda isn’t alone in calling for the Blind Sheikh’s release.
After being sworn into office in June, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, promised to work for the Blind Sheikh’s release. Also in June, a member of Rahman’s terrorist organization visited Washington in an attempt, he said, to demand the sheikh’s freedom.
We will surely learn more over time, including if there is anything more to this. At a minimum, we know that various forces have been increasingly agitating for Rahman’s release in recent months.
And there are potentially significant dots to connect: (1) Gamaa Islamiya’s planned protest on behalf Rahman, (2) Mohammed al Zawahiri’s involvement, (3) Ayman al Zawahiri’s offer on September 10 to trade an American hostage for Rahman’s release, (4) Two reports from MEMRI showing renewed calls for Rahman’s release by Salafists and jihadists in Egypt, and (5) CNN’s reporting on the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades’ suspected involvement in Libya.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.