Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda’s emir, was released from an Egyptian prison on Mar. 17. He had been charged with establishing a terrorist group linked to al Qaeda and plotting attacks against various targets inside Egypt, but a court dropped the charges and let him go.
“My father has been released. He reached home early this morning [Mar. 18],” Abdelrahman Zawahiri, Mohammed’s son, told Agence France-Presse in an interview.
Jihadists celebrated in February when an Egyptian court ordered Mohammed freed. In the sixth issue of its Al Masra newsletter, which was posted online on Mar. 5, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published a short blurb highlighting Mohammed’s pending release. (A screen shot of the notice in Al Masra can be seen on the right.)
Mohammed al Zawahiri was imprisoned in Egypt in 1999, after first being detained in the United Arab Emirates. During the 1990s, he served as a senior figure in Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which was headed by his brother and merged with Osama bin Laden’s organization prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Mohammed was released from prison following the Egyptian uprisings in 2011. He quickly became a prolific advocate for al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology. He publicly denounced Western democracy and espoused al Qaeda’s supposed virtues while preaching in Tahrir Square, as well as during appearances on Egyptian television and radio programs. He also did interviews with Western journalists.
Mohammed’s activities garnered additional scrutiny following the protest outside of the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. The previous day, Sept. 10, Ayman al Zawahiri released a video that included a clip of Mohammed proselytizing in Egypt. The al Qaeda emir also called on Libyan jihadists to avenge the death of Abu Yahya al Libi, who was killed in a US drone strike in June 2012.
Mohammed and several other al Qaeda-linked jihadists helped instigate the protest outside the US Embassy in Cairo the following day. The pro-al Qaeda event led to the embassy’s walls being breached. The American flag was torn down and replaced with an al Qaeda-style black banner as protesters chanted, “Obama, Obama, we’re all Osama [bin Laden]!” Several al Qaeda groups, including Ansar al Sharia Libya, raided the State Department’s Mission and the CIA’s Annex in Benghazi, Libya hours later. Four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed during the assault.
In January 2013, Mohammed orchestrated a less eventful protest outside of the French Embassy in Cairo. Banners of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri were flown outside of the embassy as protesters objected to France’s intervention in Mali. The younger Zawahiri brother repeatedly threatened France and the West during the rally.
Despite his overt support for al Qaeda, Mohammed claimed he was not really a member of his brother’s organization. Evidence collected by Western intelligence officials told a different story. US intelligence officials connected him to jihadists across al Qaeda’s international network, and he reportedly helped Egyptian terrorists contact his older brother. One of his followers was also killed during an attack on Malian soldiers in May 2013.
During his time free from prison, Mohammed was a prominent speaker at events hosted by Ansar al Sharia Egypt, an organization that advocated the imposition of al Qaeda-style sharia law. Ansar al Sharia Egypt was founded by a longtime comrade of the Zawahiri brothers.
Mohammed was rearrested by Egyptian authorities in August 2013. But he continued to be referenced in al Qaeda propaganda in the years since.
In October 2014, for instance, AQAP released a short biography for Mustafa Ali (a.k.a. Humam al Masri), a jihadist who served in the group’s media department before he was killed in a US drone strike in late 2013.
AQAP’s biography of Ali contained an interesting note concerning his imprisonment in Egypt. “He invested his time in prison in seeking knowledge and meeting with the experienced mujahideen such as sheikhs Mohammed al Zawahiri and Abdul Hakim Hasaan, may Allah preserve both of them and release them,” according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group.
Mohammed was a leading figure in Ansar al Sharia Egypt. Therefore, it is not surprising that Mustafa Ali would be drawn to Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, where al Qaeda first used the Ansar al Sharia brand in the post-Arab Spring world.
Egypt has changed drastically since President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013. Mohammed al Zawahiri enjoyed a relatively permissive environment during Morsi’s reign. It remains to be seen what the longtime jihadist does now.