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Al Qaeda arrest said to be case of mistaken identity

February 29, 2012 |  9:40 am

Senior Al Qaeda commander Saif al-AdelREPORTING FROM CAIRO -- A man arrested by authorities Wednesday as an Al Qaeda mastermind and confidant of Osama bin Laden turned out to be a onetime militant looking for redemption before he was nabbed in a case of mistaken identity, according to Egyptian state media.  

Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi, a former Egyptian army officer who said he fought with jihadists decades ago, was arrested at the Cairo International Airport after landing on a flight from Pakistan via Dubai. He was not, state media outlets said, who officials first said he was: Saif al-Adel, an Al Qaeda leader wanted for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa that killed 224 people.   

Makkawi deserted from the army in the 1980s amid revelations that he was linked to extremists and angry over Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. He traveled to Saudi Arabia and then to Afghanistan to fight with militants against Russian forces who had occupied the country. He reportedly renounced Al Qaeda years ago, but was wanted for questioning in Egypt as a possible threat to national security.

"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," Makkawi told journalists at the airport. "I did not carry out any operation against any installation or individual." 

He added: "I challenge any security agency to prove that I am Said al-Adel, who is a different person."

The official Egyptian news agency, MENA, reported that Makkawi told investigators that he ended involvement with Al Qaeda 23 years ago. He said he was recently married and had been living in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

His return comes after scores of radical Islamists and militants have been released from prison since last year's overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak’s government.

The confusion at the airport, which has embarrassed Egyptian officials, arose over Makkawi's military background and his name, which is an alias used by Al-Adel. A militant Islamist for decades, Al-Adel, who is also a former Egyptian army officer, has been linked to the 9/11 attacks and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Al-Adel has often been described as a military and intelligence strategist and onetime chief of Bin Laden's security detail. Officials said he briefly took control of Al Qaeda following the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Bin Laden last year.

Ayman Zawahiri, another Egyptian and the group's longtime second-in-command, was named leader after an internal struggle.

Al-Adel has written terrorist manuals, including one reportedly called "The Base of the Vanguard," and trained militants in Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan, officials said

"Al-Adel is thought to be affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), and is believed to be a high-ranking member of the Al Qaeda organization," according to am FBI wanted poster. The U.S. has offered a $5-million reward for his capture in connection with the African bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

The wanted poster gives few other details about Al-Adel, listing his height, weight and build as "unknown"; his birth date is between 1960 and 1963, it says.

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-- Jeffrey Fleishman

Photo: Undated FBI handout image of senior Al Qaeda commander Saif al-Adel. Credit: FBI

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