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.

This image provided by the FBI shows an undated image of Saif al-Adel, also known as Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi. He was arrested Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 at Cairo Airport but he has denied the link and says it was a case of mistaken identity. Saif Al-Adel is wanted by the US since the bombings of US embassies in Africa in 1998.

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.

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.

Even the birth name of the wanted Al Qaeda leader is uncertain. "Saif al-Adel," which means the "Sword of Justice," appears to be a nom de guerre. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in its book "Al Qa'ida's (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa" devotes a chapter to Saif and this is how it begins: "His date of birth is April 11, 1960 or April 11, 1963.  Since the identity behind his nom de guerre is unknown, it is impossible to say anything about his family or  childhood. There is some indication that he did not have a traditional Islamic education,  or if he did that it was not very extensive."

The FBI, in its most wanted listing for Saif (which offers a $5 million reward for information leading to this arrest), is likewise uncertain about his date of birth or his height, weight, or build.

Most of what's known, or thought to be known about him, comes from the writings and memoirs of jihadis, including Saif himself. He's claimed that in 1987 he was a colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces and that he was arrested that year. He fled his homeland in 1988, he's said, and soon linked up with jihadis on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

In addition to the US embassy bombings in Africa, Saif appears to have been instrumental in bringing on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant responsible for dozens of atrocities in Iraq before his death in a US airstrike in June 2006. The (Mis)Adventures book explains:

"In 1999 that Saif began his–and al-Qa’ida’s–relationship with Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi. In his Zarqawi memoir Saif writes that he had learned about Zarqawi from articles by Abu Qatada al-Filistini in the latter’s London-based magazine al-Minhaj, and that he subsequently followed the news of the court case and  imprisonment of Zarqawi and other Jordanian and Palestinian militants. Upon his release  from Jordanian prison in 1999 Zarqawi moved to Peshawar, and soon thereafter traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan to meet with al-Qa’ida officials.  After meeting with Zarqawi and finding that he was a “hardliner” and in disagreement with certain aspects of al-Qa’ida’s ideology and practice, Saif asked Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri for the task of liaising with Zarqawi and overcoming their differences. The two al-Qa’ida chiefs appointed him to this task, and it was later agreed that al-Qa’ida would provide  support for Zarqawi to establish an independent but al-Qa’ida-associated training camp in Herat, Afghanistan."

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