SHEIK OMAR ABDEL RAHMAN LOOKS OLDER than his 55 years. The diabetes that has plagued him from birth has left him blind and frail. His followers in the United States number only a couple of hundred. So it is somewhat hard to believe that, in some people's minds, Sheik Omar now ranks with the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein as a suspected fountainhead of international terrorism.

The Sheik catapulted into American headlines last February after the bombing of the World Trade Center. Since most of the six men arrested worshiped at his mosque, press reports speculated he may have been a part of the conspiracy, though so far no evidence has been found to link Sheik Omar directly to the attack. Then, on June 24, six more of the Sheik's followers were among the eight men arrested for allegedly plotting to bomb several sites in New York City—including the U.N. building, local FBI headquarters and two major Hudson River highway tunnels.

As he did after the World Trade arrests, Sheik Omar called a news conference at his modest Jersey City apartment and denied any involvement in bomb plots. "Public places and private places are forbidden by Islam In be attacked, he said after the World Trade Center bombing. "In the Koran it says, 'God will not approve of anyone who commits such attacks.' "

If the Sheik's followers aren't getting that message, however, it may be because he shows a different face when the TV cameras are off. One of his fiery sermons that was taped and sent to Egypt, for example, contains the following passage: "Hit hard and kill the enemies of God in every spot to rid it of the descendants of apes and pigs fed at the tables of Zionism, communism and imperialism."

Though new to Americans, the Sheik is well known in Egypt. Born in the Nile delta village of Gamâlîya and blinded by diabetes when he was 10 months old. he learned the Koran by heart by the time he was 11. He earned a master's degree at Cairo University's School of Theology in 1965 and later completed a doctoral dissertation at al-Azhar University in Cairo.

Sheik Omar married a college-educated Egyptian, Aisha Hassan Gouda, who bore seven sons. Later he look a second wife (under Islamic law, a man can have up to four wives), university graduate A. Zohdi, who had three more children. Angry that Sheik Omar had married another woman, Aisha left him. Though Sheik Omar's attorney says he divorced Aisha, sources close to the family say he remarried her under Islamic law.

While working a-a teacher in southern Egypt in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Sheik railed against the "infidels"—whom listeners understood to be Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and, later, Anwar el-sadat—who had betrayed the Muslim faith by failing to establish an Islamic slate in Egypt. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the Egyptian government charged that Sheik Omar was the spiritual mentor of al-Jihad, the militant Muslim organization responsible for the attack, and was also involved in the murder. The Sheik was tried, but the government couldn't prove its case and he was acquitted of all charges.

By then the Sheik had made it onto the U.S. State Department's list of suspected terrorists. Vet beginning in 1990 he managed to enter the United Stales several times due to a series of foul-ups. Once, the computers happened to be down at the visa office in Sudan. On another occasion, the Sheik slipped through a computer check at Kennedy Airport because his name was written incorrectly on at least one document. In 1991, Sheik Omar got a green card to live permanently in the United States.

Some high-ranking Egyptian officials and foreign diplomats in Cairo believe that the Sheik's good fortune with U.S. immigration was no accident. They claim Sheik Omar forged lies with the CIA during the Afghanistan war by actively supporting the U.S.-backed Muslim guerrillas fighting the Soviet-sponsored regime in Kabul—and that a grateful CIA eased his entry into the country. The agency has denied these allegations.

Justice Department officials are debating whether they have grounds to detain the Sheik—or to deport him. Some believe the Sheik is more valuable in the country because he may lead authorities to more terrorists. Others, concerned about boosting the Sheik's stature among radicals, want to have an ironclad case before making an arrest. Says terrorism expert Neil Livingstone: "The worst thing in the world would be to arrest Sheik Omar with a weak case...and then have to let him go."

MARILYN ACHIRON
ALLISON LYNN in New York City, GAMEELA ISMAIL in Cairo and NINA BURLEIGH in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Allison Lynn,
  • Gameela Ismail,
  • Nina Burleigh.