An Egyptian Islamist, mistakenly identified as a senior al-Qaeda commander because he has the same name, was detained at Cairo airport on Wednesday for suspected militant activities, but said he had cut any links with al Qaeda more than two decades ago.
Mohamed Ibrahim Makkawi, born in 1954, was detained on return to Egypt from Pakistan, security sources said, but added that initial suspicions he was Saif al-Adel, an al-Qaeda commander also known by the alias Mohamed Ibrahim Makkawi, were incorrect.
“He is wanted for involvement with the Al-Jihad (group). He is not Seif al-Adel,” said a source at the National Security apparatus. Officials and state media earlier said the man was the senior Qaeda militant Seif al-Adel.
The source said the man, Muhamed Ibrahim Makkawi, had left for Afghanistan to join the war against Soviet troops in the 1980s, and later settled down in neighboring Pakistan.
Makkawi told reporters at the airport that he had returned to Egypt to clear his name.
“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 said, after arriving from Pakistan via the United Arab Emirates.
He said he had been wrongly identified as Saif al-Adel because his name had been used as an alias, but said he had severed any links to the group in 1989, shortly after the organization was set up and several years before it declared its drive against the West and those it deemed foes of Islam.
“I did not carry out any operation against any installation or individual,” said Makkawi, a former army officer in Egypt’s special forces.
He said he knew former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, then a top official in the group and now its leader, but said relations went no deeper than that.
State media had identified him as an al-Qaeda leader, but himself had in an interview last year that he had been mistakenly identified as the senior militant.
Makkawi told the told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, in an interview published in May 2011, that he had disagreed with al-Qaeda and sought political asylum in Pakistan.
“Following the tragic events of 9/11, I was surprised to find that my name and history had been placed underneath the image of another Egyptian, under the false name ‘Seif al-Adel’ as part of a list of 22 of the most wanted terrorists issued by the FBI, even though I have no connection to al-Qaeda or its operations,” he had said.
He added that he was wanted in Egypt for involvement in al-Jihad, a onetime militant group that renounced violence in the late 1990s.
After the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a U.S. commando raid in Pakistan in May last year, reports surfaced that Seif al-Adel, identified as Makkawi, had taken over the jihadist network for a brief period.
Little is known about Saif al-Adel, but he is generally seen as a senior al-Qaeda military commander who is believed to have opposed the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. targets, arguing that they were strategically ill-advised as they would invite a harsh U.S. response.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lists Saif al-Adel as born in 1960 or 1963. As well as the Makkawi alias, he is known by the name Ibrahim al-Madani, the FBI website says.
But analysts say Makkawi was mistaken for another militant with a similar background.