Al Qaeda honcho probably not in Egyptian custody

This morning, there was a curious report originating with the Egyptian state press and then repeated throughout the Western media that Saif al Adel, a longtime al Qaeda bigwig, had flown from Pakistan to Egypt to turn himself in. The report didn’t make much sense, mainly because it offered no explanation why one of the world’s most wanted terrorists — who has been hunted since at least 1998, when he was implicated in al Qaeda’s embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — would voluntarily turn himself in. No reason was proffered for al Adel’s supposed decision to simply give up.

Now, a number of press outlets are reporting that it probably wasn’t Saif al Adel at all, but instead a man named Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi. For years, both the American and Egyptian governments identified “Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi” as al Adel’s real name. This apparently isn’t true, and so when the real Makkawi flew back to Egypt some confused him for the master al Qaeda terrorist.

The idea that al Adel would simply turn himself in makes little sense on its face. He has spent a decade and a half, if not more, avoiding capture.

After the 9/11 attacks, al Adel fled to Iran. In 2003, al Adel was implicated in al Qaeda’s attacks abroad, including the Riyadh suicide bombings in May of that year. According to George Tenet, in his autobiography At the Center of the Storm, al Adel also tried to broker a deal to acquire nuclear technology. Whether the nuclear material was real or not is an open question — my hunch is, probably not. In any event, the Iranians did not place al Adel under a loose form of house arrest until after both American and Saudi authorities complained about his role in organizing terrorist plots from Iranian soil. There are reports that he was allowed a degree of operational freedom even while living under “house arrest,” however.

The Iranians eventually allowed al Adel, as well as other senior al Qaeda honchos, to return to the mother ship in Pakistan. After Osama bin Laden was killed in May of 2011, al Adel was reportedly named al Qaeda’s interim emir. If true, he held the position only until Ayman al Zawahiri could be confirmed as the new full-time emir. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda’s interim emir and Iran.]

There is no good reason for a terrorist of al Adel’s stature to simply turn himself in — at least not without some truly incredible motivating factor. And now it appears that this morning’s report was simply a matter of mistaken identity.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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2 Comments

  • Paul D says:

    He might feel safe when MB are in charge!

  • Neo says:

    At some point I expect Al Qaeda will test the loyalties of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I would expect the more hardline elements within the Muslim Brotherhood to push their agenda within. I expect they will test Egypt’s connections to the west by putting forward agenda items the west will object to, and also force the accommodation of extremists. I have some doubt whether an Islamist political regime in Egypt will be compatible with continued US aid. On the other hand Turkey and the US still have fairly good relations, just so the US doesn’t ask too much. For that mater, I’m not particularly comfortable with the increasingly religious positions the Israeli’s have taken over the last few decades and would like a little more distance from them as well.

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