Mohammed al-Zawahiri arrested in Egypt


Ty Butler, Senior CorrespondentInternational Development and Conflict Last Modified: 02:30 a.m. DST, 19 August 2013

Mohammed al-Zawahiri (Crop)

GIZA, Egypt - The brother of Al Qaeda Central’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been arrested in Egypt. Mohammed al-Zawahiri was detained at a checkpoint in Giza during a military crackdown on Islamists supposedly supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi which has seen over 1000 arrested so far.

This is not the first time that Mohammed al-Zawahiri has been arrested. He was sentenced to death in Egypt in absentia in the 90’s for his alleged role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat and was detained in Dubai before being transferred to the Egypt.

Instead of having his death sentence carried out, he instead spent the next 13 – 14 years in Cairo’s Tora prison. Following the fall of Hosni Mubarak from power, the military’s interim government (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) released Zawahiri as part of a general amnesty program. Shortly after he was rearrested and tried under a military tribunal where he was acquitted of charges related to terrorism and the attempted overthrow of the Egyptian state and re-released in March 2012.

Zawahiri’s name stands out among those arrested due to the international jihadi activities of his brother.  Initial speculation over justifications of his arrest surround accusations of an “alliance” with Morsi and suggestions that he has been leading militants in the Sinai Peninsula. The truth behind Mohammed al-Zawahiri’s actual story though is less clear.

Formerly a deputy and military commander of his older brother’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement, Zawahiri was linked to some of the organization’s militant jihadi cells in Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia before apparently breaking ranks with the group due to its increasingly closer ties to Al Qaeda (the Egyptian Islamic Jihad would go on to merge with Al Qaeda and from part of the core of Al Qaeda Central’s leadership).

Mohammed al-Zawahiri’s role in international jihadism has, since then, been murky at best. Part of the agreement that saw his execution stayed was allegedly the informing on Egyptian Islamic Jihad activities (in cooperation with the CIA and Egyptian intelligence), coupled with a renouncing of violence.

Upon his release he co-founded the group Ansar al-Sharia Egypt with other former members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The ideological underpinnings of the group remain unclear. The founding statements of the organization dedicates the group to thesupport of mujaheddin style jihadi groups all over the world. This is a similar stance to Al Qaeda Central and the more public leader of Ansar Al Sharia Egypt, Ahmed Ashush, has made many public statements praising Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and militant groups both overseas and those located within the Sinai Peninsula. Such groups include Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, Al Salafiyya al Jihadiyya, and the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, who are largely known for their rocket attacks against the state of Israel.

Despite verbal support for such groups, Ahmed Ashush claims that his organization “are not preachers of violence” and that they are not armed. Whether or not one is inclined to believe Ashush or the goals of his organization, Mohammed al-Zawahiri himself has shown considerable public restraint with regards to calls for violence. Six months after being released from prison, Zawahiri publicly called for a peace deal between the West and Islamists. After the military ousting of Mohamed Morsi, Zawahiri likewise issued statements on Facebook that, while aimed at stirring up jihadis, did not explicitly call for violence.

Murky ideological structures aside, it does seem evident that Mohammed al-Zawahiri has strong connections to Ansar al-Sharia Egypt and thus possible connections to more violent militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula, and even to Al Qaeda Central (though no official connections are known to exist). This connection is reinforced through his appearance in both Al Qaeda style propaganda videos and in videos released by the Al Bayan Media Foundation, the propaganda wing of Ansar al-Sharia Egypt.

As the case for Zawahiri’s involvement with jihadi groups in the Sinai strengthens though, the case for him being an ally of former president Morsi simultaneously diminishes. Al Qaeda and international jihadi groups have long been in contention with the Muslim Brotherhood over their participation in democratic processes and failure to implement sharia law. Head of Ansar al-Sharia, Ahmed Ashush has made similar statements and condemnations of Morsi’s government prior to his fall from power. These condemnations have long been echoed by Al Qaeda Central and other affiliated groups.

When Moris was deposed, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Al Shabaab both wasted little time in utilizing the incident to denounce participation in democratic institutions and to push jihad as the only legitimate way to build a “just” society.  Whatever his role within Egypt’s larger Islamist community, Mohammed al-Zawahiri’s capture is unlikely to either significantly weaken support for Morsi (given his affiliated organization's traditionally negative views of them), or significantly impact the operational capabilities of armed militant groups that have been mobilizing in the Sinai.

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