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Alias causes confusion as wrong man detained in Cairo

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A flurry of excitement passed briefly through U.S. intelligence agencies early Wednesday when Egyptian authorities announced they had arrested an al-Qaeda member wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi was taken into custody at Cairo International Airport after a flight from Pakistan. His name appears on the FBI’s most-
wanted terrorist list as an alias for Saif al-Adel (“sword of justice” in Arabic), an Egyptian who once served as Osama bin Laden’s security chief and is under indictment in the Southern District of New York for his alleged role in the embassy bombings.

But it soon became clear that the man detained in Cairo was not the one in the “Wanted” poster plastered on the FBI Web site for nearly a decade, and Makkawi was released Thursday, according to the prosecutor’s office, after being held overnight and interrogated.

Arabic names have long been a source of confusion for intelligence officials in the United States and elsewhere because different spellings — along with the use of honorifics, nicknames and noms de guerre — make for multiple variations. Lists of alleged terrorists often include many aliases under individual names.

“There are fugitives all over the place who have numerous a.k.a.’s,” said FBI spokeswoman Kathleen Wright. “Why someone chooses one name over another, I can’t answer.”

University of Exeter political science professor Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements, said Adel’s real name is Mohamed Salah al-Din Zaidan. Both he and Makkawi served as officers in the Egyptian army, Ashour said, but they were born at different times and places and have different connections to al-Qaeda. 

He said the FBI photograph of Adel shows the right man — Zaidan, not Makkawi.

Yet confusion still ensued Wednesday.

Makkawi told news services in Cairo that he returned to Egypt
to clear his name. “I decided to return to Egypt to live in peace, without making any deal with the Egyptian authorities and to
confirm my innocence of all charges directed against me,” he said. “I am not the wanted Saif al-Adel.”

Makkawi was dishonorably discharged from the Egyptian military for joining jihadist
fighters in the 1980s, according
to Nizar Ghorab, a lawyer
who represents clients from
jihadist groups.

Makkawi was arrested and imprisoned by Egyptian authorities but later fled and eventually was connected to al-Qaeda for a short time in Pakistan. He split from the group in 1989, said Ghorab. Makkawi sought to clear his name in a 2009 letter to United Nations officials in which he explained the mistaken identity.

Other than as a possible alias for Adel, Makkawi’s name does not appear on public U.S. terrorist lists.

Gen. Marwan Mustapha, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told CNN that Makkawi was wanted on charges of terrorism and conspiring to topple the regime.

The arrest of Adel, for whom the State Department has offered a $5 million reward, would have been a far more important development. He was briefly bin Laden’s security chief, overseeing al-Qaeda’s military operations.

Adel remains a senior member of the organization and was considered a chief rival of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over as commander of al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in a raid last year.

Fadel reported from Cairo.

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