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Mistaken identity? Top Al Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel probably not arrested in Cairo.

So far, reports of the arrest of Al Qaeda's Saif al-Adel, once the group's top military planners, in Cairo don't appear to be correct.

By Staff writer / February 29, 2012

Was Saif al-Adel, a senior Al Qaeda commander wanted by the US since the bombings of US embassies in Africa in 1998, arrested today in Cairo? Probably not.

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Confusion between Mr. Adel and another Egyptian militant (a far, far smaller fish) who may have shared a similar alias is probably to blame for the stories coming out of Cairo today. Very little is known about the man who ran training camps for embryonic Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, helped set up the group's operations in Africa later that decade, and has been described as the leader of Al Qaeda's military committee since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

Saif was incorrectly reported to be the new Al Qaeda leader after the killing of Osama bin Laden last year, and was also said to be held for a time by Iran, which means his capture could shed a lot of light on Al Qaeda's present, and recent past. Even more stunning would be the fact that he had effectively turned himself in, by notifying authorities and flying home, eventually giving up on the cause to which he'd devoted most of his adult life.

The man arrested is an Egyptian by the name of Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi. "Makkawi' is an alias that Saif has used in the past. But the age of the Makkawi in custody doesn't appear to line up with what's known about the Al Qaeda leader. The man arrested at the airport was also allowed to speak to reporters, and implied that he'd gone to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but that he'd broken ties with militant groups in 1989.

"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 told reporters.

The wilderness of mirrors

Hundreds of Egyptians and other Arabs fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and many have remained in exile since. Home states like Egypt, Jordan, and Libya viewed the returning jihadis as radical security threats, but many of the those men have been trickling home in the last decade, promising to give up on the militant ways of their youth.


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