Security tight as blind sheikh faces court in US: Cleric pleads not guilty to charges that he leads terrorist group that bombed World Trade Center

THE RADICAL Islamic cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman last night pleaded not guilty to charges that he is the leader of a terrorist group that bombed the World Trade Center in New York and plotted a host of other bombings, assassinations and kidnappings.

Security was tight before the blind sheikh's court appearance in New York, amid fears in the United States that his indictment might produce a backlash from his fundamentalist followers. US embassies worldwide were reportedly stepping up security.

The indictment of the sheikh, who has been in custody since 2 July, follows months of investigation by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies which began after a car-bomb attack on the trade centre in February, in which six people died. In June, the authorities said they had uncovered a conspiracy to bomb other targets in the New York area, including the United Nations headquarters.

Sheikh Abdel-Rahman, 55, was among 15 men named in the indictment, which accuses them of conspiring to wage a 'war of urban terrorism against the United States'. Although 11 were charged previously in the trade centre bombing, it was the first time that the authorities alleged that recent terrorism in the US was the work of one organisation. There was no suggestion that their alleged activities were directed by foreign interests.

The decision to put the sheikh on trial was greeted with outrage among his followers in Egypt who issued a statement threatening to strike US targets if any harm came to him. But the move was welcomed by several of those who the US authorities claim were among the sheikh's followers' intended targets. Senator Alphonse D'Amato, a Republican from New York, suggested that the cleric should be executed if convicted.

The indictment lets the Egyptians out of a tight diplomatic corner. They were incensed that the US, which is committed to ensuring Egypt's stability, should have allowed the sheikh to preach revolution in Egypt and to incite his followers to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. But they did not want him back in Egypt to face trial, although they were obliged to seek his extradition. His indictment gets him out of the way, without Cairo being seen as creating a martyr.

The sheikh was one of 24 defendants in the trial of the alleged assassins of President Anwar Sadat in 1982. He was a pathetic figure in the iron cage that served as the dock. He was accused of issuing the fatwa which declared Sadat a legitimate target, but he had no part in composing the ideological tract of the assassins, The Absent Pillar, whose author was executed. He was acquitted and retreated to Fayoum, south of Cairo, where he was again accused of incitement in the 1989 anti-government riots. Again he was acquitted.

Yet he enjoys increasing support, and any action taken against him is bound to create a backlash, for which the US is preparing itself after three radical Egyptian groups threatened to hit US targets.

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