CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian with the same name as a long-sought senior al-Qaida leader was arrested Wednesday in Cairo, but he denied any link to the terrorist network and said it was a case of mistaken identity. Two U.S. officials agreed.
Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi was arrested on his arrival at Cairo airport from Pakistan via Dubai and was taken for questioning, security and airport officials said.
The FBI has listed that name on its most-wanted list as an alias for the senior al-Qaida leader known as Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who has been indicted by the United States for an alleged role in the Aug. 7, 1998 bombings of U.S. 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 U.S. officials, however, also said the arrested man appears to have been mistaken for the wanted al-Qaida leader. The officials 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 U.S. 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 is a veteran figure in al-Qaida, believed to have been the head of its military committee. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran, where he was reportedly held under house arrest, though it is believed he continued to be active and in recent years he was reportedly allowed to make trips to Pakistan.
Former militants who know both men have previously said they are two different people and the U.S. identification is incorrect.
But 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 traveled to Egypt using travel documents issued by the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad.
"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 the 1960s.
Wearing a gray Arab robe and a jacket, Makkawi looked nothing like the man in the photograph distributed by the FBI as that of Saif al-Adel's. Makkawi has receding silver hair and wears glasses.
Makkawi said that Saif al-Adel's real name was Mohammed Salah Zidan. Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who represented Makkawi in Egypt, also told the AP last year that al-Adel's real name was Mohammed Salah Zidan. 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 "Mohammed 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 whose name is Mohammed Salah Zidan," said Makkawi.
A senior Egyptian security 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 official 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 Hosni Mubarak in an insurgency in the early 1990s.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Noman Benotman, a Libyan who was once a member of a jihadist group linked to al-Qaida, says the man arrested is actually Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi and is not Saif al-Adel.
Benotman, now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, says he has met both Makkawi and al-Adel.
Benotman, who said he has spoken to security officials in Egypt, said Makkawi flew to Egypt "purposely to clear his name as many former jihadists have been released since all of the political changes in Egypt."