AM: We’ve recently been talking about the primary characters of the War on Terror narrative you told in your book Coercive Beliefs: Omar Abdel-Rahman, Lynne Stewart, and Ramzi Yousef. With the first two, you’ve said you are drawn to their ambiguous quality. What do you mean by that? Why are Lynne and the Blind Sheikh so important to you?
MK: The thing with Omar Abdel-Rahman and Lynne Stewart is that their lives were long, eventful, and consequential. With Abdel-Rahman you have a cleric that got his start in the origins of a very extreme strain of political Islamism in Egypt, whose influence extends not just to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, but through the globalization of his political ideology in the Afghan-Soviet war to New York terror and all the way to the Arab Spring, and beyond. The Egyptian contingent of the Arabs who went to Afghanistan in the 80s were a crucial influence on Bin Laden’s path to terrorism. When al Qaeda was essentially a defunct group of former paramilitary trainers, the Blind Sheikh was contemplating attacking the United States for sponsoring Hosni Mubarak. When Mohamed Morsi assumed the Presidency of Egypt in 2012 he spoke before thousands of people, many of them holding banners with Abdel-Rahman’s image on them. Abdel-Rahman’s imprisonment in the United States deepened and broadened his appeal. So while plenty of normal Egyptians admired Abdel-Rahman, there were also terror cells in Libya who named their group after the Sheikh. It’s hard to think of a corresponding figure in American life. The Blind Sheikh touched many facets of the world’s present condition.
With the lawyer Lynne Stewart, you have an under-acknowledged yet towering force in American counterculture who became a victim of both the War on Terror and her own crusading romanticism. Her defense of Abdel-Rahman landed her in jail when she was not only reasonably old but also suffering from cancer. The tragedy of Stewart’s hubris, and the pathology of the prosecutors she was dueling with, is almost mythic to me. Not so much biblical, more like Aeschylus or Homer.
Stewart’s crime was passing messages from the Blind Sheikh to his followers in Egypt. Which was just an incredibly stupid thing to do. Stewart was recorded talking about sending Abdel-Rahman’s secret messages while visiting the Sheikh in prison, in what sounds and smells like a crisis in our legal system. Did Stewart believe she was playing a role in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak? How did she come to be so devoted to her client that she was willing to accept the consequences? One thing is for sure, Stewart did not believe she would get the amount of jail time they eventually gave her. The prosecutors wanted to make an example out of her. For Stewart, a radical leftist, to devote herself as wholeheartedly as she did to a theological populist like Abdel-Rahman is fascinating. It is not a cut and dry story.
When I say that they were ambiguous I meant that both Stewart and Abdel-Rahman, despite their strong personalities and hardened beliefs, seemed to stumble into their futures, caught up in the grip of forces that were way beyond them. I wonder how much agency either the Blind Sheikh or Stewart had. Certainly, Abdel-Rahman preached political violence and there are enough corpses in his wake to constitute a pattern. But Abdel-Rahman required an action man. I’m not saying Abdel-Rahman was innocent but I would say that there are questions around whether or not he was actually running the show. He was very useful for people underneath him who themselves had designs on the direction of events. Abdel-Rahman was also useful for rivals like Ayman Zawahiri and his agent Ali Mohammed.
This is in contrast to Ramzi Yousef, who I believe had absolute agency in his activities. Yousef made the 1993 truck bomb that went off in the World Trade Center. He experimented with methods of political murder in Pakistan and Manila. Try to imagine the logistical challenge of experimenting with timed explosive devices while traveling through South Asia in the early 1990s. Yousef was an extremely dangerous individual. It was his cousin, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 story is full of very dangerous, very determined people. In the 93 story, Yousef is unique. He was surrounded by idiots.
I think the story of Omar Abdel-Rahman and Lynne Stewart deserves more attention. There are many great works on 9/11 and the War on Terror, but there is not yet a great 93 WTC bombing book. There is a lot to learn from that story to this day.