CAIRO — An Egyptian man whose name was listed by the FBI as an alias for a senior al-Qaida figure was arrested Wednesday when he flew to Cairo from Pakistan. He denied any link to the terrorist network and said it was a case of mistaken identity, a claim backed up by two U.S. officials.
Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi was arrested on his arrival at the airport was taken for questioning, security and airport officials said.
His name appears on the FBI list of most wanted terrorists as an alias for the senior al-Qaida figure known as Saif al-Adel. The wanted man is an Egyptian who has been indicted by the United States for an alleged role in the Aug. 7, 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people. He also was linked to the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Two U.S. officials also said the arrested man appears to have been mistaken for the al-Qaida operative. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence information that has not been publicly released.
The FBI said it was still sorting out details of the case.
"We are aware that an individual has been taken into custody and every effort is being made by the U.S. government to verify the identity of the person in custody," said William Carter, a spokesman at FBI headquarters. He declined to comment further.
Saif al-Adel is an al-Qaida veteran, believed to have been the head of its military committee. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran. He was reportedly held under house arrest there, though it is believed he continued to be active and in recent years he was reportedly allowed to make trips to Pakistan.
Former militants who know both men have previously said they are two different people and the FBI incorrectly mixed them up.
Makkawi told reporters he was not Saif al-Adel and that he had nothing to do with the terror group since 1989. He said he entered Egypt with travel documents issued by the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. He flew to Cairo from Pakistan via Dubai.
"What has been said about me is lies. I never took part in actions against people or installations," he said.
"I decided to come to Egypt to live in peace and because I am certain of my innocence," he said. "I have cut no deals with Egyptian authorities," said Makkawi, who is 57. Makkawi gave his birth date as Dec. 17, 1954. The FBI says Saif al-Adel was born in the 1960s.
Dressed in a gray Arab robe and a jacket, Makkawi bore no resemblance to the man in the photograph of Saif al-Adel distributed by the FBI. Makkawi has receding silver hair and wears glasses.
Makkawi said that Saif al-Adel's real name is Mohammed Salah Zidan. Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who represented Makkawi in Egypt, also told the AP the same thing last year. A senior Egyptian security official involved in the case said Makkawi was wanted for questioning in Egypt in a case dating back to 1994 that involves the activities of the militant Jihad group, whose members fought the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak in an insurgency in the early 1990s.
Al-Adel's FBI profile was posted in October 2001 when the FBI "Most Wanted Terrorist" list was created — just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The name "Mohammed Salah Zidan" is not mentioned in the FBI profile.
"I challenge any security agency to prove that I am Said al-Adel, who is a different person whose name is Mohammed Salah Zidan," said Makkawi.
The Egyptian official involved in the case supported Makkawi's assertion of innocence. The official said Makkawi was a former army officer who left Egypt in the 1980s to join the fight against Russian forces in Afghanistan.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Noman Benotman, a Libyan who was once a member of a jihadist group linked to al-Qaida, also said the man arrested is actually Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi and is not Saif al-Adel.
Benotman, now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, says he has met both Makkawi and al-Adel.
Benotman, who said he has spoken to security officials in Egypt, said Makkawi flew to Egypt "purposely to clear his name as many former jihadists have been released since all of the political changes in Egypt."
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Eileen Putman in Washington and Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.