'Senior al-Qa’ida leader' arrest is case of mistaken identity


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The Independent Online

A former Egyptian jihadist arrested by officials at Cairo airport and initially accused of being a senior al-Qa'ida leader declared to reporters that he was the victim of a case of mistaken identity. With no small irony, he had made the journey in an attempt to clear his name.

Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi was arrested on his arrival at Cairo airport from Pakistan via Dubai and taken for questioning, security and airport officials said. Security officials initially announced said they believed the man was Saif al-Adel, a senior al-Qa'ida figure with a $5m bounty on his head and wanted by the US over the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa that killed hundreds.

The man arrested by police insisted to reporters that he was not the al-Qai'da leader and that he had returned to Egypt from political exile in Pakistan in order to clear his name after many years. He said he had been given travel documents by the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad where he has been openly living.

"I am not the wanted Saif al-Adel," Mr Makkawi told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "What has been said about me is lies. I never took part in actions against people or installations. I decided to come to Egypt to live in peace and because I am certain of my innocence."

Terrorism analysts said it was not the first time that Mr Makkawi had been mistaken for the al-Qa'ida leader. Last summer Asharq Alawsat, the Arabic newspaper which has its headquarters in London, reported how Mr Makkawi had told them: "In truth, I am not him [Saif al-Adel]. I was forced to deny this voluntarily, after my release from prison in Egypt."

The paper reported that Mr Makkawi had struggled in vain to have the US remove from its files the "fact" that Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi is the real name of Saif al-Adel. One reason the two men may have been confused is that both are Egyptian army officers who left the army to join Ayman al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. They also both fought alongside the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

According to the AP, a senior Egyptian security official supported Mr Makkawi's assertion of innocence. The official said Mr Makkawi was a former army officer who left Egypt in the 1980s to join the fight against Russian forces in Afghanistan.

The official said Mr Makkawi was wanted for questioning in Egypt in a case dating back to 1994 that involves the activities of the militant group, whose members fought the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak in an insurgency in the early 1990s.

Mr Makkawi was had been detained after arriving on an Emirates flight from Pakistan, that had stopped at Dubai.

It has long been assumed that Saif al-Adel is living in Iran. While some reports suggested he may have left and travelled to northern Pakistan, other experts believe he remains in Iran.

Noman Benotman, a former Libyan militant who turned his back on violent Islamism but knew many of the early mujahideen leaders from the Soviet-Afghan campaign, said Mr Makkawi had always been haunted by the accusation that he was an al Qa'ida leader.

"Makkawi is not Saif al Adel and never has been," he told The Independent. Mr Benotman, who met Mr Makkawi in the early 1990s in Pakistan, painted a somewhat tragic portrait of a former militant who has spent much of the past decade failing to clear his name.

"He was a member of the Egyptian army and, like Saif al Adel, he went to fight in Afghanistan with Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was put in charge of some of the frontline fighting around Jalalabad but he was always in conflict with Bin Laden and Zawahiri. He just couldn't work with them."

He added: "He felt his career and family were ruined by his early association with Zawahiri and Bin Laden. But he was never al-Qa'ida."

Mr Benotman said that while many of those drawn to join the Afghan mujahedeen were impressionable middle class idealists, Mr Makkawi was a staunch military man who was often highly critical of his fellow militants' strategic abilities.