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.