By Hamza Hendawi / AP
CAIRO: A former Egyptian militant has returned home saying he wanted to clear a case of mistaken identity that confused him with a senior Al-Qaeda leader sought by the United States. Washington confirmed that Mohamed Ibrahim Makkawi is not the wanted Saif Al-Adel.
The fact that Makkawi felt safe returning home Wednesday after years in exile illustrated the more welcoming atmosphere for hard-line Islamists in post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, where even Islamists with ideologies akin to Al-Qaeda’s now sit in parliament.
Makkawi was arrested on his arrival at Cairo airport and taken for questioning, security and airport officials said. He was released on Thursday following questioning, the official MENA news agency said.
His name appears on the FBI list of most wanted terrorists as an alias for the senior Al-Qaeda figure known as Saif Al-Adel, a pseudonym that means “sword of justice.”
The wanted man is an Egyptian who has been indicted by the United States for an alleged role in the Aug. 7, 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people. He also was linked to the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Two US officials also said the arrested man appears to have been mistaken for the al-Qaida operative. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence information that has not been publicly released.
The FBI said it was still sorting out details of the case.
“We are aware that an individual has been taken into custody and every effort is being made by the US government to verify the identity of the person in custody,” said William Carter, a spokesman at FBI headquarters. He declined to comment further.
Saif Al-Adel remains an FBI fugitive, said FBI spokeswoman Kathy Wright.
An AP investigation last June revealed that several European intelligence and law enforcement agencies doubted US assertions that Makkawi was an alias for Saif Al-Adel, and believed he was in fact another man. AP also published photographs of two faces that bore little resemblance and spoke with people in several countries who knew both Makkawi and Al-Adel, who insisted they were not the same man.
The FBI at the time refused to address the apparent differences between the two photographs and profiles.
Makkawi’s return reflects the changing fortunes of Egyptian Islamists after last year’s ouster of Mubarak, their scourge for the 29 years he was in power.
Mubarak’s overthrow in a popular uprising empowered Islamist groups, which went on to sweep recent elections for parliament’s upper and lower houses. In the meantime, hundreds of militants who once used violence to topple Mubarak’s government and replace it with a purist Islamic state have been released from jail, where they languished for years under the provisions of emergency laws.
Some of these, including ultraconservative Salafis, some of who follow a doctrine close to Al-Qaeda’s except for the use of violence, are now lawmakers. During a recent session of the lower house, a Salafi lawmaker created a stir when he interrupted the proceedings to sing out the call for prayers. Others have altered the oath of office by adding a phrase that they would not follow any laws or respect a constitution that violated the teachings of Islam.
Noman Benotman, a Libyan who was once a member of a militant group linked to Al-Qaeda, said Makkawi was encouraged to come home to clear his name “as many former jihadists have been released since all of the political changes in Egypt.”
Benotman, now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, has said previously he had met both Makkawi and Saif Al-Adel and that they were two different people.
Saif Al-Adel is an Al-Qaeda veteran, believed to have been the head of its military committee. After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran. He was reportedly held under house arrest there, though it is believed he continued to be active and in recent years he was reportedly allowed to make trips to Pakistan.
At Cairo airport, Makkawi told reporters he was not Saif Al-Adel and that he had nothing to do with the terror group since 1989. He said he entered Egypt with travel documents issued by the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. He flew to Cairo from Pakistan via Dubai.
“What has been said about me is lies. I never took part in actions against people or installations,” he said.
“I decided to come to Egypt to live in peace and because I am certain of my innocence,” he said. “I have cut no deals with Egyptian authorities,” said Makkawi, who is 57. Makkawi gave his birth date as Dec. 17, 1954. The FBI says Saif Al-Adel was born in 1960 or 1963.
Dressed in a gray Arab robe and a jacket, Makkawi bore no resemblance to the man in the photograph of Saif Al-Adel distributed by the FBI. Makkawi has receding silver hair and wears glasses.
Makkawi said that Saif Al-Adel’s real name is Mohamed Salah Zidan. Montasser El-Zayyat, a lawyer who represented Makkawi in Egypt, also told the AP the same thing last year. Several former militants who know both men said the FBI incorrectly mixed them up.
A senior Egyptian security official involved in the case said Makkawi was wanted for questioning in Egypt in a case dating back to 1994 that involves the activities of the militant Jihad group, whose members fought the government of ousted president Mubarak in an insurgency in the early 1990s.
Saif Al-Adel’s FBI profile was posted in October 2001 when the FBI “Most Wanted Terrorist” list was created — just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The name “Mohamed Salah Zidan” is not mentioned in the FBI profile.
“I challenge any security agency to prove that I am Said Al-Adel, who is a different person, named Mohamed Salah Zidan,” said Makkawi.
The Egyptian official involved in the case supported Makkawi’s assertion of innocence. The official said Makkawi was a former army officer who left Egypt in the 1980s to join the fight against Russian forces in Afghanistan.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. –AP writers Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Putman and Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.