Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, was arrested in Egypt yesterday. According to Al Masry Al Youm, he was detained at a security checkpoint in Giza, which is located not far from Cairo on the west bank of the Nile river. An anonymous Egyptian security official has confirmed the arrest in an interview, according to the Associated Press.
Mohammed al Zawahiri became a prominent figure in post-Mubarak Egypt, granting frequent interviews to the press and organizing protests against the West. He used the permissive environment to proselytize on behalf of al Qaeda’s ideology.
While being coy about his ties to the al Qaeda organization, Mohammed al Zawahiri has emphatically defended his more infamous older brother and al Qaeda’s role in the world. His official Facebook page, which was taken down in recent weeks, was peppered with al Qaeda statements and posts glorifying his older brother.
Press reports have cited Zawahiri’s ties to jihadists in the Sinai, although it is not clear what exact role he has played in this relationship. Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula is led by Osama bin Laden’s former doctor, and other al Qaeda-linked groups operate in the area as well.
Mohammed al Zawahiri has known, active ties to terrorists elsewhere. One of his followers even took part in a suicide attack in Mali.
Ties to assaults on US diplomatic facilities
Mohammed al Zawahiri is one of the several prominent al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who helped instigate the Sept. 11, 2012 protest at the US Embassy in Cairo. The embassy’s walls were breached, leading to the stars and stripes being torn down and an al Qaeda-style black banner being raised in its place.
Later that same day, terrorists overran the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans. Some of the al Qaeda-linked terrorists responsible were trained in camps operated by Muhammed Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad). Both Zawahiri and Jamal were Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) commanders during the 1990s. The EIJ was led by Ayman al Zawahiri, who formally merged his organization with al Qaeda prior the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Jamal and the younger Zawahiri were imprisoned together for years during Hosni Mubarak’s rule. In 2007, they were among several signatories on a letter defending al Qaeda against its jihadist critics.
Jamal was arrested late last year by Egyptian security forces and accused of being a leader of the “Nasr City cell,” which has ties to al Qaeda and the terrorist attack in Benghazi. According to The Wall Street Journal, US officials think that Mohammed al Zawahiri helped Jamal contact his older brother. Jamal corresponded with Ayman al Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012.
Another leader of the cell, Sheikh Adel Shehato, was also arrested last year.
Shehato is a close ally of Mohammed al Zawahiri and the two have appeared together at public events in Cairo and elsewhere. Video clips of the duo have been used by al Qaeda in its official propaganda videos.
Reaction to most recent crisis
Mohammed’s son, Abdel Rahman al Zawahiri, has denounced the arrest, saying his father refrained from taking part in the widespread protests and riots that erupted after a military coup overthrew Egypt’s Islamist president on July 3. Abdel Rahman also claimed that his father had not called on Salafi jihadists to take part in the protests, but Mohammed did in fact explicitly endorse the rallies on his social media pages.
Mohammed al Zawahiri has walked a fine line in his public statements, frequently avoiding direct calls for violence inside Egypt, while openly advocating violence elsewhere.
On July 2, the younger Zawahiri issued a statement on his official Facebook page concerning the political crisis. He vowed that jihadists “will have the upper hand” in the end “and that is what matters.” And should the jihadist “trend be established in Egypt,” it will transform the entire region, leading to an “Islamic revival and victory.”
“If the United States and its agents in the state of Egypt” push tensions to the point of “confrontation, it will definitely be in our favor because we do not have anything to lose,” Zawahiri wrote. Ominously, Zawahiri argued that all will not be lost “even if all of us had been eliminated and the first and second lines perished,” because “we entered this arena not only after we had sold ourselves to God, but also we believe we lived more than we expected.”
Despite setting forth the justifications for jihad against the Egyptian military in his July 2 statement, Zawahiri was careful not to explicitly endorse attacks against the military. In another statement endorsed by Zawahiri on his social media pages in early July, he and his fellow jihadist ideologues called for sharia law to be implemented immediately. They said, however, that the matter will be escalated through the press, and they will organize “massive rallies” and demonstrations that are “proportionate with the reaction of the authorities in charge.”
Therefore, contrary to his son’s claim, Mohammed al Zawahiri has openly endorsed the protests, calling on Salafi jihadists to participate.
Rejected democracy, defended al Qaeda
Mohammed al Zawahiri has been a leading figure in Ansar al Sharia Egypt, a group that appeared after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Like Ansar al Sharia chapters elsewhere, the organization routinely rejects democracy. Its leaders have argued that the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral gains were inconsistent with Islamic law.
In a statement published in June, Ansar al Sharia denounced democracy as “one of the greatest deceptions used by the enemies of” Islam because it pushes people away from their obligation to perform jihad. Along with his co-authors, Mohammed al Zawahiri rejected the “filthy market of democracy” outright.
Mohammed al Zawahiri has starred at Ansar al Sharia Egypt’s events, which have been used to garner new recruits and spread the jihadist ideology.