EGYPTIAN lawyers for the militant Islamist preacher Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman have warned that if the United States extradites the sheikh to Egypt, American interests may be endangered internationally.
"The extradition of Sheikh [Rahman] will be an American foolishness that will set off a wave of violence against its interests. They will put their interests in danger," lawyer Montasser al-Zayyat warned in Cairo following the decision of Egyptian authorities on Sunday to request Rahman's extradition.
A militant Islamic group in the occupied territories yesterday threatened to kidnap US citizens if Rahman is extradited.
The extradition request is unrelated to the sheikh's arrest in New York on Friday on immigration charges, according to Egyptian officials.
But both the arrest and the extradition effort have increased the political heat surrounding Rahman. In the three years he has spent in self-imposed exile in the US, launching verbal attacks against the Egyptian government and President Hosni Mubarak, Rahman has strengthened his position as the unchallenged ideologue of Islamist militancy.
On Saturday an Egyptian judge ruled that the militant preacher should be arrested for a retrial of his role in a 1989 riot in which two policemen died. He was tried earlier for conspiring to assassinate President Anwar Sadat in 1981, but was acquitted of sanctioning the murder. He has since been quoted as having taken credit for the death of the president by radical Islamists.
At least twelve men who have worshiped with the sheikh in mosques in the New York area have been arrested in connection with either the February bombing of New York's World Trade Center or last month's discovery of an alleged plot to carry out a series of assassinations and bombings in the city.
Egypt's semi-official press and official circles have long complained bitterly about the freedom of the sheikh to engage in political activities in the US, in contrast to his virtual house arrest in Egypt. Indeed there have been frequent allegations that Rahman gained entry into the US despite being listed by the State Department as an undesirable, because of CIA support for his activities in Afghanistan. US officials deny the charge.
Yet there has never been much enthusiasm among Egyptian officials for having the sheikh returned to this country. There are doubts that those who decided to order a retrial in the case of the riots and Rahman's alleged involvement actually wanted his extradition.
"The retrial was ordered in the heat of the moment, with terrorist incidents on the increase but I don't think the government wants him back, for when he is returned one can expect a resurgence in attacks by the extremists.
Authorities, however, were bound to ask for his extradition once the judge had made its decision," says Hussein Ahmed Amin, formerly Egypt's ambassador to Algeria and a specialist on Islamic fundamentalism.
Word of Rahman's arrest in the US did not prompt threats of violence in the way that the extradition request has. One of the sheikh's Egyptian lawyers told journalists yesterday that as the sheikh had not been harmed, US interests were safe.
"No American targets will be hit," lawyer Adel Ayoumi said.
The announcement of Egyptian authorities' demand for his extradition, however, has changed the dynamics of the situation because of Islamist fears of what will happen to the sheikh if he is extradited.
"Because he is in bad health and because of the torture he would be submitted to in Egyptian prisons, there is an obvious danger to his life if he were extradited," explained Mr. Zayyat, adding that he hoped it would be possible for Rahman to go to a third country.
But what other country would accept him remains an open question. Sudan, where Rahman received his visa in 1980, would be unlikely to be willing to anger neighboring Egypt by providing him sanctuary.
And Rahman's lawyers appear determined to fight his deportation from the US, a process which could take months if not years.