Middle East

Man arrested at Cairo airport 'not al-Qaeda commander'

Saif al-Adel (FBI)
Image caption Saif al-Adel is on the US most-wanted list with a $5m (£3.1m) reward for his capture

Doubts have emerged over the identity of a man arrested at Cairo airport on Tuesday, suspected of being a top al-Qaeda militant.

Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi was detained on arrival from Pakistan and taken for questioning, security officials said.

But he told reporters at the airport that he was not Saif al-Adel, an al-Qaeda commanderwhose real name the US lists as Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi.

Former militants who have met both men have said the US information is wrong.

Saif al-Adel was once a key member of Osama Bin Laden's inner circle, and served briefly as al-Qaeda's military commander in 2001.

The former army colonel is wanted by the US in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and is suspected of training some of the 11 September 2001 hijackers.

After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, he is believed to have fled to Iran, where he was reportedly held under house arrest.

Recent reports said Saif al-Adel might have been released and made his way to northern Pakistan. There was also speculation that he became temporary leader of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden was killed last May.


Egyptian state media were quick to report on Wednesday that Saif al-Adel had been detained at Cairo International Airport after flying to Egypt from Pakistan via Dubai.

Security and airport officials said they had received information about his plans to return to Egypt and hand himself over the authorities.

All flights from Asia were monitored as he was expected to come from either Afghanistan or Pakistan, and his name - Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi - was spotted on the passenger list of the flight, they added.

But before being taken away for questioning by the Higher State Security Prosecution (HSSP), the man spoke to reporters at the airport.

"I am not the wanted Saif al-Adel," he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. "What has been said about me is lies."

"I never took part in actions against people or installations," he added. "I decided to come to Egypt to live in peace and because I am certain of my innocence."

Mr Makkawi insisted that he had had nothing to do with al-Qaeda since 1989, and that he had flown to Egypt using travel documents issued by the Egyptian embassy in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says that Mr Makkawi is reportedly now a strident critic of al-Qaeda, though he may be wanted for alleged terrorist offences committed inside Egypt a number of years ago.

A senior security official involved in the case also supported Mr Makkawi's assertion of mistaken identity, AP reported. But he confirmed Mr Makkawi was a former Egyptian army officer who had travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight Soviet forces with the mujahideen - like Saif al-Adel.

Omar Ashour, a lecturer in Politics of the Modern Arab World at the University of Exeter, told the BBC that Saif al-Adel's real name was Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan, and that the two men had different dates and places of birth, and different experiences with jihadism and al-Qaeda.

Noman Benotman, a Libyan who was once a member of a group linked to al-Qaeda, told AP that he had met both Mr Makkawi and Saif al-Adel.

Mr Makkawi had flown to Egypt "purposely to clear his name as many former jihadists have been released since all of the political changes in Egypt", Mr Benotman added.

Our correspondent says that if the Egyptian authorities have indeed got the wrong man, it will be a big embarrassment, as state media have been trumpeting what they are declaring as a great success.

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