A blind Islamist cleric convicted in a plot to blow up the Holland Tunnel and other New York City landmarks has emerged as the latest flashpoint between national security conservatives and the Obama administration. But a Brookings Institution scholar yesterday offered a legal analysis for why Omar Abdel Rahman “isn’t going anywhere.”
Conservatives led by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey – a former federal judge who presided over the 1995 trial of Rahman – have raised alarms that the administration was planning to free the cleric, who was an ally of Osama bin Laden and whose followers in New York were convicted of an attempted car bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.
Writing last month in the Wall Street Journal, Mukasey conceded the evidence of any intention to release Abdel Rahman was “circumstantial.” But he called on Congress to seek an “unequivocal statement” from the administration that Abdel Rahman will continue to serve out his life sentence.
Eight GOP lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder imploring them to oppose any sort of release to Egypt as an act of appeasement.
On Oct 5, the Justice and State Departments said in letters to those lawmakers there is “no truth” to the notion the administration is considering the sheikh’s release.
“Omar Abdel Rahman will serve the rest of his life in prison,” said the letter from acting Assistant Attorney General for legislative affairs Judith Appelbaum and David Adams, assistant Secretary of State for legislative affairs. “No consideration is being given to releasing him or transferring him to another country to complete his sentence.”
The conservatives’ concerns were sparked by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s speech at his swearing-in ceremony in June in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in which he unexpectedly vowed to work for the release of Abdel Rahman, the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist organization Gama’a al-Islamiyya who issued the fatwa that inspired his followers to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Mukasey said the Obama administration should immediately offer an assurance that it will not transfer the Islamist cleric to Egypt to serve the remainder of his life sentence. He wrote that the “excruciatingly lawyered” responses on the question from State Department and other officials will “send chills up the spine of anyone familiar with Abdel Rahman’s record and President Morsi’s inclinations.”
The administration would not be able to use the Justice Department’s international prisoner transfer program because the United States does not have such transfer treaty with Egypt. To kickstart this process, Obama would have to negotiate a treaty and convince two-thirds of the Senate to agree to the deal before the Blind Sheik could move from his cell in North Carolina.
The other option — a unilateral transfer — is also highly unlikely, Bennett wrote.
“A unilateral transfer would mean gutting a longstanding policy for the sake of an especially noxious jihadist, and justifying the departure to a skeptical public and an equally skeptical Congress,” he wrote.
A last ditch effort to pardon the convicted terrorist? Don’t even think about it, Bennett wrote.
Abdel Rahman’s family has been holding vigils outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo demanding the sheikh’s release. Among the acts of terror linked to the blink sheikh was the 1997 massacre of tourists at the Egyptian archeological site Luxor, in which flyers demanding Abdel Rahman’s release were stuffed into the disembowled remains of many of the 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians who were killed.
Abdel Rahman, 74, is serving his life sentence at the Federal Medical Center in the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, in Butner, North Carolina. Convicted Ponzi scheme Bernard Madoff is serving his term in a medium security wing of the same complex.
This story was updated with response from the administration.