Egyptian president wants ‘Blind Sheikh’ freed

In a rousing speech in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, told the crowd that he will work to free Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh.” Rahman is currently serving a life sentence in a US prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against New York City landmarks.

Morsi’s call for Rahman’s return to Egypt was a curveball for all those Western watchers who are looking to brand the new president a moderate. At times, including during his speech on Friday, Morsi does use language that sounds quite conciliatory. But peppered throughout his rhetoric are troubling red flags.

Sheikh Rahman was a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden. The deceased al Qaeda master credited a fatwa authored by Rahman for providing the religious justifications for the Sept. 11 attacks. Rahman has also served as the spiritual guide for Gamaa Islamiyya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), both of which are terrorist organizations that have been close allies of al Qaeda for decades. The EIJ also formally merged with al Qaeda under Ayman al Zawahiri’s leadership.

Some of al Qaeda’s earliest hijacking plots (which were never carried out) were intended to spring Rahman from jail. The idea was to trade the hijack victims for Rahman. To this day Rahman’s freedom remains a cause for jihadists. And some of Rahman’s family members continue to fight on. Just last year, one of Rahman’s sons was killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan.

Morsi’s call for Rahman’s freedom is, therefore, the latest red flag.

The invaluable MEMRI organization recently published excerpts from a speech Morsi gave in May. During the speech, Morsi struck a strident tone, insisting that “[t]he Koran was and will continue to be our constitution.” Morsi elaborated by saying that the new Egyptian constitution “will truly reflect [the sharia],” or a version of Islamic law. “This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic sharia,” Morsi claimed.

“Jihad is our path,” Morsi said. “And death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration.”

Like other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Morsi has frequently claimed to be pro-democracy and comparatively liberal in his beliefs. But such rhetoric is often contradicted or mitigated by other statements he has made.

Consider an interview with Eliot Spitzer, then of CNN, in early 2011. Even during a television appearance in which Morsi had a strong incentive to put the Muslim Brotherhood’s best foot forward for a Western audience, he had some troubling things to say about Israel and terrorism.

On the issue of Israel, Spitzer pressed Morsi to say whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood would recognize Israel’s right to exist if its candidate for president was elected to office. (Morsi was not the candidate at the time, but was instead a spokesman.) After offering several muddled responses Morsi finally offered this [emphasis added]:

Sir, sir, sir, this is a heavy question. You want to talk about the future, and you do not look into the past and the present. This is a heavy question. It’s out of faith. It’s ridiculous to ask about the future.

Why you don’t have even your freedom in your country and you are close by, the foreign policies of the United States against the Palestinians and others. The blood is shed from the Palestinians for more than 60 years. Let us stop the bloodshed of the Palestinians and then talk about such matters in the future.

We are not against people. We are not against mankind. We are not against the Jews. We are against Zionism. We are against torturing the Palestinians.

Spitzer had asked for a yes or no answer to his simple question: “Would you recognize the state of Israel?” Morsi couldn’t say yes.

Instead, Morsi insisted that the Brotherhood is not against “the Jews,” which isn’t really true. The Brotherhood is deeply anti-Semitic. Morsi could then not stop himself from adding: “We are against Zionism.”

Then there is the question of whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood supports terrorism. It is fashionable in some circles to claim that the Brotherhood is strictly “nonviolent,” but that is really not true either. The Brotherhood gave up on violence against Mubarak’s regime after decades of brutal oppression. Violence, from the Brotherhood’s standpoint, simply wasn’t working.

But the Brotherhood has routinely advocated and endorsed violence elsewhere, including in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Spitzer asked: “Will you then right now disavow the use of violence against the state of Israel?”

Morsi’s answer is an example of doublespeak. “We do not use violence against anyone,” Morsi said. “What’s going on [sic] the Palestinian land is resistance.” Morsi continued: “The resistance is acceptable by all mankind and it’s the right of people to resist imperialism.”

Of course, such “resistance” is violent and includes Hamas’s extensive use of suicide bombers. (Hamas is a self-described chapter of the Brotherhood.) In Iraq and Afghanistan, other senior Brotherhood leaders have advocated violence against American-led forces under the same mantra of “resistance.”

Morsi is known to be a 9/11 truther. And during his interview with Spitzer, Morsi seemed to condemn the 9/11 attacks only to then equivocate on who was responsible. This is another example of doublespeak. Spitzer asked if he would “right now condemn the attacks by al Qaeda both in – on the United States and elsewhere in the world as acts that violate….”

Morsi responded:

We did before. We are against whoever did this to the civilian people. We are against this act and we said we want a fair trial, not just an accused, and if you prove by a fair trial – you Americans, if you prove by a fair trial who did this, we are against that whoever did it with you. We stand with you against whoever did this if you can prove really who did this.

As late as 2011, therefore, Morsi claimed that we do not know for sure whether or not al Qaeda was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some will continue to focus mainly on Morsi’s moderate-sounding rhetoric. The truth is that he often makes not-so-moderate statements as well. His speech on Friday is a good example of this.

“We will complete the journey in a civil state, a nationalist state, a constitutional state, a modern state,” Morsi said of Egypt’s revolution.

And then he called for an arch-terrorist, long allied with al Qaeda, to be freed.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Stephanie says:

    Interesting how Islamists have different definitions of words than we do.
    Morsi calls it not “violence” but “resistance”. I once made the horrible mistake of calling the Iraqi insurgency – aka AL QAIDA IN IRAQ – “terrorists” when I was in Egypt, because I had just come from Iraqi Kurdistan where Kurds and Iraqi Christian Assyrians are always denouncing the violence that had ravaged their countries at the hands of these people. Well, I was repremanded and informed that they were merely “resistance” agains the “occupiers” and if someone broke into my house wouldn’t I defend it, too? Wow, what a different world! I’m pretty sure they reserve the word “terrorist” only Israel, and next in line America. The blindness and double-standard / hypocrisy is astonishing.
    And 9/11 conspiracy theories are big in Egypt. Unfortuantely I’m not surprised that Morsi believes them. I mean, OBVIOUSLY Israel was behind 9/11 and the Muslims are innocent and framed by that vast anti-Arab conspiracy that includes the CIA, the Mossad, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard all working together against the Arabs – though at the same time I’m sure they would consider 9/11 justified so I think there may be some cognitive dissonance there.
    I would be nervous for Israel with Morsi in power. And I wouldn’t be surprised if next he invites Ayman al-Zawahiri to return with full protection and set up a Doctors on Duty or something. LOL.

  • Paul D says:

    God help Egypt with this man/organisation in charge!

  • JRP says:

    I agree that Morsi will work to get Ayman al Zawahiri back into Egypt and cloth him with some kind of diplomatic protection so that he is freer to operate in the open.
    As to Sheikh Raman . . . I would offer to trade him for our people or persons being held as POWs. I believe there’s only 1 military POW, but there may be a few civilians being held. We should work a trade similar to what used to occur in Berlin during the Cold War with the Soviets, when periodically we’d swap captured spies.

  • Isaiah says:

    @stephanie, Assyrians and Kurds were against violence because it didn’t serve their INTERESTS. Kurds and Assyrians were the only ones who immediately benefited from the invasion. For others, violence against U.S. troops served their interest, until AQ’s power-grabs got too notorious and and they switched sides. Simply put. I don’t think you can simplify the Iraq war like that. Given the time frame, you can’t blame some for seeing themselves as resistance fighters and others as terrorists.

  • Stephanie says:

    That’s a good point, but the way I felt about it from talking with people from the Kurdish and Assyrian side was that their feelings had more to do with their own prejudices, for Assyrians their fear / dislike of Muslims and for Kurds their almost racist anti-Arab feelings. I don’t think they necessarily had any specific, tangible political interests or not (though possibly mores o for the Kurds and their desire for sovereignty) but definitely a lot of anti-Arabism and anti-Islamic extremism.

  • Chris says:

    It is questionable that Beau Bergdahl is even a POW. Have you read the recent news about him? It makes him seem more like a defector than a POW. His emails suggest that he intended to desert the U.S Army and that he had sympathy for the Afghan insurgency.

  • jayc says:

    I don’t agree with the Arab man-on-the-street view, but I understand it. The British referred to the American colonists as “terrorists” during the Revolutionary War. We, of course, viewed ourselves as “freedom fighters.”
    A little bit of humor here. President Frankin D. Roosevelt had previously been Asst Secretary of the Navy, and was known to be extremely fond of the same. A popular story which circulated when I was in the Navy went something like this: During a war brieifng at the White House, an exasperated Army officer said to FDR: Sir, I appreciate your affinity for the Navy, but could you please quit referring to the Navy as “Us,” and the Army as “Them?”
    Haha. Lastly, I remember when Anwar Sadat signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty with Menachem Begin. Reporters were asking Egyptians what they thought about it, and were receiving predictable comments. However, one wizened old Egyptian responded he was in favor. Incredulous, the reporter asked why? The old man responded, “The Palestinians want to fight the Israelis down to the last Egyptian!”

  • Da says:

    @Isaiah — People do throw around the term terrorist too loosely, and so I sometimes agree that what we are calling terrorist should really be called insurgent. In particular, an ambush against soldiers or police is not really terrorism, even if it involves suicide bombers. It might be cowardly, despicable, and in service of an evil ideology, but its not terrorism.
    But when someone deliberately attacks unarmed civilians in order to stampede the government towards a political goal, that IS terrorism, and no amount of changing points of view can change that. The 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 attacks, the attacks on the trains in Spain, the attacks against Shia pilgrims in Iraq, the attacks on Shia in Pakistan, the attack in Beslan, the attack on the Moscow theater, the rocket attacks against cities in Israel, the Iranian attack on the Jewish community Center in Argentina, the PLO attack on the ’72 Olympics, and the myriad Palestinian attacks against aircraft in the 80s, are all pure, unadulterated terrorism. There was no sense of “resistance” in those attacks.

  • Don Laird says:

    And so it begins…..this is just the first in a long line of red flags….until, soon, we see Egyptian troops massed at the Israeli border….
    Regards, Don Laird
    Edson, Alberta, Canada

  • mike merlo says:

    and the diversions begin. This kind of nonsense is indicative of 1 of 2 things: 1) an individual who has little or no clue as to how to run the country & remedy what ails it, 2) reread 1 then have it followed by taking action against any & all who disagree with Muslim Brotherhood gobbledygook

  • Paul says:

    I’m not sure how meaningful the term moderate is, but most of what Morsi is quoted as saying regarding the legitimacy of Israel, the appropriateness of violent resistance against occupations of Muslim land and 9/11 conspiracy theories are absolutely mainstream, middle of the road beliefs held by a hefty percentage of people in that part of the world (and not just those that would consider themselves Islamists)
    I believe the secular, Nasserist presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, also subscribed to them.

  • Hernando says:

    I think most misunderstand the concept of ‘civilian’ in Islamic terminology.
    A male over the age of puberty (i.e if he has pubic hair) and is in the ‘territory of war’ – dar al harb is what i believe they refer to it as, is not a civilian. Regardless whether he is armed or unarmed. He can be a bank teller or a clown in a circus, it is irrelevant. His designation is ‘harbi’.
    As far as females go, it is a grey area. If they are military the issue is black and white, if they are what we would call civilian then its a grey area according to Islamists. The reason being that in modern times men and women serve actively in the military (whether or not it is a front line combat role is irrelevant) so the case of female civilians is similar to the case of male civilians.
    Interestingly, Nuclear weapons point at Metropolitan areas and dont usually point at Military bases. They target civilians & civilian infrastructure, federal structures etc – for the most part.

  • Carl Warner says:

    He seems like a nice fellow. Let’s send them another billion.

  • wallbangr says:

    @Chris: Your assessment seems a little harsh and your judgment premature. From what I’ve read of the e-mails, there was not a specific threat to defect, as much as just pissing and moaning about how FUBAR the mission was. Sounds more to me like a kid who was having a tough time adjusting to the military. There are plenty of soldiers who feel the same way about Army life in a war zone. True, not many are as extreme as this young man was in their anti-Americanism (but believe it or not, there are some). Plenty of guys are frustrated with the mission. You add to that the everyday nonsensical and unjust BS that ordinarily occurs within the Army, and perhaps it isn’t as traitorous as it sounds. Hell, the Army invented an acronym that encapsulates the phenomenon perfectly: SNAFU. I think this young man was a little fruity to begin with, had some naive notions of what he would be doing over there, and became disenfranchised after dealing with the harsh and inequitable realities of Army life. So it seems to me that it is a rush to judgment to assume, based on the videos released by the Taliban, and the comments from his fruitcake parents, that he defected. As for how it is that he is on these videos spewing lefty Anti-Americanism, I think you need to consider the possibilities of brain washing or Stockholm Syndrome. I think what he says in videos shot by people pointing guns at him has to be discounted. He is being held by people who would snuff him out (and send the video to Al Jazeera) without batting an eye. The government and military are still going to want him back no matter what. He can come back and be Hanoi Jane all he wants, but as a policy matter we have to do everything in our power to recover DUSTWUN soldiers. Perhaps then we can all judge what’s in this guys heart. I think right now, the facts just aren’t all in.


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