AP IMPACT: FBI terror profile merges identities

June 29, 2011 - 5:44 AM
Britain Terrorism The Real Makkawi

In this undated image provided by the FBI, an wanted poster for Saif Al-Adel on the FBI's most wanted list is seen. The FBI's most-wanted list features a dated black-and-white photograph for the man wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Saif al-Adel, reads the glaring red banner, alias Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi. There's only one problem: Intelligence officials and people who say they know al-Adel and Makkawi tell The Associated Press that they are two different men. (AP Photo/Federal Bureau of Investigation)

LONDON (AP) — The FBI's most-wanted list features a dated black-and-white photograph for the man wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Saif al-Adel, reads the glaring red banner, alias Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi.

There's only one problem: Intelligence officials and people who say they know al-Adel and Makkawi tell The Associated Press that they are two different men.

In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, AP reporters around the globe began hunting for fresh details on al-Adel — al-Qaida's so-called third man because of his strategic military experience. Traversing a reporting trail that spanned from Europe to Egypt and from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, a different picture started to emerge about al-Adel: that the FBI might have been working off a flawed profile of him that merged his identity with another person.

Intelligence officials from five countries and a handful of sources who say they knew the men personally over the years confirmed to the AP that al-Adel and Makkawi were two distinct people. Some of those sources came forward with two photographs that show two different men.

"That is certainly not Makkawi," Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who represented Makkawi in Egypt, told the AP after looking at the FBI's photo of al-Adel.

In response to several questions, the FBI declined comment on whether al-Adel and Makkawi could be two different people or whether it was possible the information they had been using was bad or dated. It simply said al-Adel, like others on the list, had been indicted by a U.S. grand jury. However, the original documents in al-Adel's case remain sealed, making it all but impossible for the public to see where the FBI obtained its original evidence or the basic details about al-Adel's identity.

"The FBI will not disclose investigative steps, relevant intelligence, nor case details during an active investigation," said FBI spokeswoman Kathleen R. Wright. "This policy preserves the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of individuals involved in the investigation. Investigators and prosecutors routinely review information and intelligence involved in each case."

The apparent error describing the man believed to be a top al-Qaida military strategist and bin Laden insider highlights the patchy or false intelligence that often goes into profiles of top suspects by the world's intelligence services.

Many of the profiles are based on information obtained from captives under duress or worse. Some bits come from unreliable sources. Other tips are never verified.

On the surface, some may ask why the world should care — one man is a jihadist with a $5 million bounty on his head; the other a former jihadist turned al-Qaida critic. But the case raises a number of important questions about the accuracy of FBI profiles and how stale or misleading intelligence could hamper searches.

Al-Adel's profile, for example, was posted in October 2001 when the FBI "Most Wanted Terrorist" list was created — just a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Although some of the descriptive details may be old, the FBI says the details are still accurate and relevant.

"We have no information there have been any significant errors regarding the individuals in which we are seeking the public's assistance in locating," the FBI said.

Yet since 9/11, dozens of people have been wrongly mistaken for suspected terrorists because of faulty or spotty intelligence.

A German man snatched by the CIA in Macedonia and tortured at a secret prison in Afghanistan is suing Macedonia for his ordeal after U.S. courts rejected his case on the grounds that it could reveal government secrets. The man says he was kidnapped from Macedonia in 2003, apparently mistaken for a terror suspect.

A Canadian engineer who was also caught up in the U.S. government's secret transfer of terror suspects to ghost sites was deported to Syria when he was mistaken for a terrorist as he changed planes in New York on his way home. The Supreme Court refused to hear his case against top Bush administration officials.

"You are going to have good intelligence and bad intelligence, but the problem is when that bad intelligence is used to charge and detain people or to build cases against others," said Ben Wizner, the attorney for Khaled el-Masri, the German who was sent to a secret prison and, according to Wizer, has suffered because of the trauma. "This faulty intelligence and disregard for the legal process has damaged and disrupted the lives of innocent people."

It is unclear exactly how Makkawi's life has been affected. The former Egyptian army officer who worked in a counterterrorism unit has yet to come forward and did not respond to several emails sent by the AP.

Still, in May a man who identified himself as Makkawi sent a handful of emails to journalists and commentators, saying he had been mistaken for al-Adel. In one email to the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, which publishes an English edition in London, he claimed he was a colonel in the Egyptian army, has long been an opponent of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups and has been mistaken for al-Adel ever since settling down in Pakistan.

He says he and his family have been branded enemies of both the United States and al-Qaida — an unenviable position.

In an earlier message to the newspaper in July 2010, the same man criticized al-Qaida and Pakistan: "There is an immoral extortion campaign against the U.S. and its allies and the Islamic movement being led by Pakistan, for its own motives. Pakistan has all of these international terrorists in its hands."

Pakistani authorities have said they have no knowledge of Makkawi's whereabouts.

It is easy enough to understand how the FBI might have originally mistaken Makkawi for al-Adel.

A tip may have come from a detainee at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, who told investigators he met with a "Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, aka (al-Adel)," according to secret documents released by WikiLeaks. Others who say they know both men say al-Adel might intentionally be using Makkawi's name as revenge for Makkawi's pointed criticism of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups.

But photographs provided to the AP by people who say they knew both al-Adel and Makkawi show two different men. The FBI's photo of al-Adel shows a slender man with thin hair, full lips and delicate features; a picture of Makkawi shows a stout man with a round face, bulbous nose and thick, curly hair.

Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida and now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, says he has met both al-Adel and Makkawi.

Describing Makkawi as "well-educated, short-fused and unpredictable," Benotman said the last time he saw Makkawi was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, around 1994.

Benotman said the last time he saw al-Adel was in 2000 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He said he was impressed with his knowledge of military strategy and country profiles.

"The big difference between them is that Makkawi hates al-Qaida, hates these jihadist groups, and in particular hates the Egyptian jihadist groups where Zawahiri came from," said Benotman, referring to the Egyptian eye doctor who has succeeded bin Laden as head of the terror network.

Both al-Adel and Makkawi are Egyptian, reportedly served in the Egyptian army and were accused of links to jihadist groups.

But Makkawi reportedly severed all ties with extremist groups after growing disillusioned with their goals and strategies.

Specializing in counterterrorism operations, Makkawi was one of several army officers accused in 1987 of forming a jihadist group. Although he was released without charge after six months in jail, he was sacked from his army job and struggled to find consistent work afterward. In 1988, he reportedly sued the Egyptian interior ministry and demanded compensation. When the suit failed, he went to see family in Saudi Arabia, then went to Afghanistan, and eventually settled in Pakistan.

Two British officials, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss intelligence matters, confirmed that Makkawi is a different man from al-Adel and said he is not wanted as a terror suspect by the British government. Britain has no such public "most wanted" terrorist list.

"Makkawi is a different man to el-Adel," one of the officials said.

El-Zayat, Makkawi's lawyer in the 1987 case, also told the AP the men were two different people and that al-Adel's real name is Mohammed Salah Zidan.

There is no mention of the name "Mohammed Salah Zidan" on al-Adel's profile.

Yasser el-Siri, founder of the Islamic Marsad Center in London — a research center for Islamic and jihadist affairs — said he met Makkawi in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca between 1989 and 1990.

He also offered some key differences in the men's lives.

Al-Adel was born in the 1960s, is tall, comes from the Nile Delta and married the daughter of a well-known Egyptian journalist-turned-jihadist, Abouel Walid, who was editor-in-chief of The Islamic Emirate magazine, an extremist publication, el-Siri said. The editor was one of an early generation of jihadists who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Western intelligence officials believe al-Adel is living in Iran but travels frequently to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was a reservist in the Egyptian army.

Makkawi, who was born in the 1950s, also comes from the Nile Delta but had a Saudi father and Egyptian mother. He graduated from military college in 1972, became a lieutenant and then joined the special forces. He is reportedly short compared al-Adel.

Makkawi joined jihadist groups in Afghanistan but then criticized them for their poor tactics and planning, describing their battles as "the war of the goats."

It is unclear when al-Adel formally joined al-Qaida or an affiliate, but he is thought to be one of the group's most experienced military strategists. Prior to the U.S. Embassy bombings, he allegedly had a hand in operations against U.S. forces who entered Somalia in 1993 in an attempt to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and some of his top lieutenants. In the end, 18 U.S. troops died in the operation.

On the surface, the truth is still unclear.

The shadowy world of intelligence has long been built on knowns and unknowns, truths and half-truths and spider webs of good, bad and old information that can take years before it is investigated, if at all. New leads often eclipse old information even as that old data lives on.

"Intelligence is a business like anything else," Bob Ayers, a former U.S. intelligence officer, told the AP.

"When the Sept. 11 terror attacks hit, the intelligence community wasn't prepared. It scurried around and it tried to make do. Old leads should and could be followed up if there were enough resources, but it's unlikely you're going to shut your best analysts in a dark room for months just so they can investigate information that is sometimes 10 years old."

Richard Barrett, a U.N. representative responsible for monitoring al-Qaida and the Taliban, also confirmed to the AP that the FBI mistakenly identified al-Adel as Makkawi and — importantly — neglected to say on his profile that al-Adel's real name, according to people in the intelligence community, is thought to be Mohammed Salah Zidan.

"We have no information that Makkawi is one of the aliases that Saif is using, so it's a question-mark why that name is on the FBI list," said another European security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk publicly about the issue.

Officials at Egypt's newly established National Security apparatus, which is now the gatekeeper of all documents and records related to the Islamic jihadists, declined to provide any details or information about al-Adel or Makkawi.

The new body is replacing Egypt's State Security apparatus, which was dissolved after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.

Should Makkawi ever come forward and try to get his name off the most-wanted terrorist list, it won't be easy.

But there are a few possibilities. Those include being tried, having the charges dropped — or dying.

"The individuals listed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorist page will remain wanted in connection with their alleged crimes until such time as they have been arrested, charges are dropped or when credible physical evidence is obtained, which proves with 100 percent accuracy, that they are deceased," the FBI said.

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Contributing to this report were Maggie Michael from Cairo, Kathy Gannon from Islamabad and Karl Ritter from Stockholm.