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Egyptian jihadist spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, died Saturday in the United States at the age of 78, his family said in a statement, at the North Carolina prison where he was serving a life sentence for conspiring to bomb civilian targets in the country.
The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed Abdel-Rahman's death, saying he died of natural causes. His death came after a long battle with diabetes and coronary artery disease, the Bureau of Prisons said.
His son, Ammar, confirmed his father's death to Reuters, saying his family had received a phone call from a U.S. representative informing them of Abdel-Rahman's death.
"We have contacted the American and Egyptian authorities to repatriate" his body, another of his sons, Mohamed Omar, told AFP.
Abdel Rahman, known as "The Blind Sheikh", had become a cause celebre for jihadists and Islamists who demanded the blind and ailing militant's freedom.
Born May 3, 1938 in the Egyptian city of al-Gamalia, Abdel-Rahman studied Islamic theology at Cairo University, earning a doctorate from the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Abdel-Rahman rose to prominence as one of the most outspoken Muslim clerics against Egyptian secularism, and during the 1970's developed close ties with Egyptian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya ("The Islamic Group").
By the 1980's Abdel-Rahman was serving as chief of Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya.
He spent three years in Egyptian prisons on suspicion that he issued the fatwa that resulted in the 1981 assassination of then-president Anwar Sadat by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but was ultimately acquitted and expelled from Egypt.
He then traveled to Afghanistan where he became associated with the Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) jihadist group and al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, assuming control of the international jihadist arm of the MAK in 1989.
Abdel-Rahman traveled to the U.S. via Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa in 1990, despite being listed on a State Department terror watch list. He arrived in New York City to consolidate the financial and organizational infrastructure of the MAK in the United States.
Abdel-Rahman began preaching at three mosques in the New York City area, delivering sermons with extreme anti-American views that condemned the U.S. as "descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists" and encouraging his followers wreak havoc on American infrastructure and kill American Jews.
One of his followers, El Said Nosair, was linked to the assassination of Israeli Knesset member Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, in 1990.
The FBI began investigating Abdel-Rahman and his followers after the February 1993 World Trade Center bombings, carried out by a group of the radical preacher's supporters.
Abdel-Rahman was arrested with nine of his followers in June 1993, after an Egyptian FBI informant gathered video and audio evidence which showed the group mixing bomb-making materials and discussing plots to attack military and civilian targets on U.S. soil.
One such plot, prosecutors said, involved simultaneous attacks on the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge and the FBI's New York headquarters.
He was convicted in 1995 of seditious conspiracy and in 1996 sentenced to life in prison in solitary confinement without parole.
Abdel Rahman had been imprisoned in North Carolina since 2007.