London, Asharq Al-Awsat – A media storm broke out in Cairo yesterday after Egyptian authorities claimed to have arrested and detained senior Al Qaeda member Saif al-Adel, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. However it ultimately emerged that the man who had been arrested was Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi – a name listed as one of Saif al-Adel’s aliases by the FBI – but not the Al Qaeda leader, information previously revealed by Asharq Al-Awsat last year. Speaking to the press before his arrest at Cairo airport yesterday, Makkawi said “I am not the wanted Said al-Adel” adding “what has been said about me is lies.” He acknowledged that he had known Al Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri but stressed that he had severed any links to the group in 1989, shortly after the organization was set up and several years before it began its campaign against the West. Makkawi also told the press that “I did not carry out any operation against any installation or individual.”
An Asharq Al-Awsat article published on 22 May, 2011, revealed that former Egyptian Special Forces officer turned jihadist, Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi had been confused by the FBI with the so-called “third man” of Al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel.
Saif Al-Adel is thought to have masterminded the 7 August 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The United States State Department’s Reward for Justice Program is offering up to $5 million for his location. According to the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, Saif Al-Adel is wanted by the United States for “Conspiracy to kill United States nationals, to murder, to destroy buildings and property of the United States, and to destroy the National Defense utilities of the United States.” The only problem is that this same website lists “Muhamad Ibrahim Makkawi” as an alias of Saif Al-Adel, whilst the real Makkawi – arrested in Cairo yesterday – has been living openly in Islamabad as a political refugee for a number of years. Makkawi has reportedly even asked the Americans to put him on trial to confirm that he is not the outlaw that they are seeking.
The mix-up over Saif Al-Adel and Makkawi can be explained in that both figures are former Egyptian army officers who left the army to join Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group [EIJ], and both figures fought alongside the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. However Makkawi later disagreed with the Al Qaeda leadership, ultimately settling down with a Pakistani local and starting a family. Makkawi applied for political asylum in Islamabad, after US and Egyptian authorities issued warrants for his arrest. In contrast, Saif al-Adel’s position within Al Qaeda has gone from strength to strength, to the point that he was a major contender to take over the terrorist network following Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s death last year.
Asharq Al-Awsat received a number of messages from Makkawi last year, and he revealed that “following the tragic events of 9/11, I was surprised to find that my name and history had been placed underneath the image of another Egyptian, under the false name “Saif Al-Adel” as part of a list of 22 of the most wanted terrorist issued by the FBI, even though I have no connection to Al Qaeda or its operations.”
He also revealed that the claims that Saif Al-Adel was accused in “case No. 401 for the restoration of the [Egyptian] Jihad organization and overthrow [of] the Egyptian regime in 1987” are false as “I was the man accused in this case, and there was never this person [Saif Al-Adel] with us in prison.”
He added “here you can understand that my name is not just the alias of Saif al Adel as you mentioned, but in fact we are facing the conspiracy of the adoption of my name and history for evil cause.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat yesterday, well-known Egyptian lawyer, Montassar el-Zayat, who often represents jailed Islamists, claimed that Makkawi has not been accused in any religious violence case over the past 20 years.
He added “Colonel Makkawi was accused of being a member of the [Egyptian] Jihad organization in the well-known case No. 401 for the restoration of the [Egyptian] Jihad organization and overthrow [of] the Egyptian regime in 1987, but he was released [from prison] after being discharged from the Egyptian armed forces” adding “his case was not referred to court.”
Whilst Yasser al-Sirri, director of the London-based Islamic Observatory Center, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “they [Makkawi and Saif al-Adel] are two completely different people, the only connection is that they are both former Egyptian army officers.”
Al-Sirri claimed that Saif al-Adel’s real name is Mohamed Salaheddin Zidan, and that he is married to an Egyptian national who is the daughter of jihadist leader Abu al-Walid Mustafa Hamid AKA Abu Walid al-Masri, an Arab mujahedeen veteran who fought in Afghanistan and who has been described as an Al Qaeda adviser. As for Colonel Makkawi, he was known as Abu al-Manzar, and is married to a Pakistani national.
As for the mix-up between Saif al-Adel and Makkawi, and the media flurry that occurred with the news that he may have been detained in Cairo yesterday, al-Sirri said the “Americans” were responsible for this, but refused to speculate whether they had deliberately or accidently mixed-up the two figures.
Al-Sirri also revealed more background about Makkawi, namely that he graduated from the Egyptian war college in 1972 and that he served as an infantry lieutenant in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, before joining Egypt’s Special Forces and being promoted to the rank of Colonel.
According to Islamists in London, Saif al-Adel was also an Egyptian army officer, although sources indicate that he was a lieutenant not a colonel; however he served in the Egyptian paratroop regiment.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry yesterday issued a statement acknowledging that “Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi is not Saif al-Adel” adding that there is “confusion” in the information available on Saif al-Adel. The Egyptian Interior Ministry also indicated that Makkawi will remain in custody and eventually appear before the Higher State Security Court to answer charges of terrorism and conspiracy to over-throw the government.