Taking The Sheik

Surrounded by grim-faced followers and wearing his trademark red and white cap, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, 55, walked slowly out of a Brooklyn, N.Y., mosque last week and surrendered to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service-thus ending, at least for the moment, one of the stranger moments in the history of counterterrorism. The sheik, who is blind, diabetic and a fiery opponent of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is widely believed to be somehow linked to last February's bombing of the World Trade Center and to the recent discovery of an alleged plot to place at least four powerful homemade bombs at locations in New York City. He denies it all, and federal authorities concede that they lack the evidence to arrest him in either of those cases. Instead, they said, Sheik Omar would be detained pending a decision on his immigration status-which, given his lurid image in the New York tabloids, was like arresting Al Capone for littering.

Terrorist or innocent cleric? No one knew for sure-and last week, the only certainty was that Sheik Omar had become a massive political headache. New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, reportedly targeted for assassination by the amateurish band of suspects arrested in the latest case, waged a personal campaign to force the Clinton administration to lock up the sheik. After much hesitation, the administration did so, invoking a provision in U.S. immigration law that allows the attorney general to detain any illegal alien who is likely to flee or who is "a danger to the community." One of Sheik Omar's lawyers, Barbara Nelson, rejected both contentions and charged that the INS had "caved in to political pressure."

The sheik, for his part, played his role perfectly in a farewell sermon at the Abu Bakr mosque in Brooklyn. He urged his followers "to give a civilized appearance to Islam" by not resisting the law. He also insisted that "we are not conspiring against America, even though we disagree with American policy." He then walked outside to his rendezvous with the INS, ignoring the jeers of Hasidic Jews who shouted "Go to hell!" and "Death to murderers!" across a cordon of New York police officers.

Sheik Omar cannot be deported immediately, no matter what his views may be and no matter how many New Yorkers seem to hate him. That's because he has applied for political asylum-in a country he seems to loathe-and because his asylum petition is pending before an INS appeals board. Because the INS board is backlogged, this could take many months-and the sheik, who seems capable of using every procedural wrinkle to his advantage, could then take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. All this is highly annoying to counterterrorism experts, who are mystified and concerned about his influence. "We really don't understand the power" of preachings by Muslim religious leaders, said the FBI's Harry Brandon. "You're hearing some frustration on our part."

But there are bigger frustrations ahead -and, indeed, the Clinton administration may have been forced to jail the sheik last week because of embarrassing revelations about how he got into this country in the first place. Sheik Omar got a tourist visa at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, in the summer of 1990, despite the fact that he was on a "watch list" that should have barred his entry to the United States. Press reports have speculated that he got the visa with the help of the CIA, or because his supporters bribed Sudanese nationals working in the U.S. Embassy. Federal officials have insisted all along that it was merely a bureaucratic foul-up.

_B_'Unbelievable bungling':_b_NEWSWEEK has learned that a still-secret report by the State Department Inspector General's Office supports the foul-up theory-but also says this snafu was worse than previously reported. The IG report says that the sheik's name was clearly listed in microfiche files that were available in the embassy. But it concludes that embassy officials didn't bother to check the list because scanning the microfiches took too much time.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, received a briefing on the secret IG report and came out fuming about "unbelievable bungling." The IG's finding revealed "a pattern of incompetence and indifference," Gilman said, that could be explained only by the fact that the State Department and INS share responsibility for screening foreign visitors.

It gets stranger. Sheik Omar is currently on trial in absentia in Egypt on charges of inciting an illegal demonstration. But the Egyptian government has not requested his extradition, possibly because of the fear of violence. News of his arrest prompted threats of widespread violence among Egyptian fundamentalists last week, and the State Department warned U.S. embassies to step up their security precautions. "The Egyptians definitely don't want the guy back, and we don't want to send him back to Sudan," a State Department official said. "Nobody has thought through what we do with him after we grab him." But grab him they did-and now, it seems, the United States is stuck with him.

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