Mohamed al-Zawahiri was behind the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but what he really wants is to make peace with the West.
- By Mohamed Fadel FahmyMohamed Fadel Fahmy is the author of Baghdad Bound and works as a freelance news producer/journalist for CNN in Cairo.
CAIRO — One of the main organizers of the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday has a modest proposal. Mohamed al-Zawahiri, the younger brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, stood outside the diplomatic compound as demonstrators ripped down the American flag and replaced it with one that read: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger." He, along with other Islamists, had called for "peaceful protests" against the U.S.-made film that has since ignited riots across the Middle East, but as he watched thousands of young demonstrators scale the embassy walls, he was thinking about something else entirely.
Zawahiri wants to broker a peace agreement between al Qaeda and the West. In a three-page proposal that has not previously been published, the veteran jihadi laid out the terms for a potential treaty: If the United States and other Western powers release all Muslim prisoners, withdraw from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, and allow Muslims to establish governments based on sharia law, al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist organizations will halt its attacks against the West and against what he described as "legitimate" Western interests in the Muslim world.
Zawahiri believes the proposal would benefit Muslims and is consistent with the principles of sharia, which he says counsel peace before war when it serves the interests of spreading God’s word. "This proposal comes at a victorious time," he said in an interview at his home in an upper-class Cairo suburb. "We are reaching out for peace, but I understand there are parties out there that make billions of dollars from war and may obstruct this proposal at any cost."
Zawahiri is not used to being a free man. In March, an Egyptian court overturned a death sentence for terrorism-related activities, and turned him loose for the first time since 1999. Much has changed in the intervening years, however, and Zawahiri sometimes feels lost in Egypt’s sprawling capital city. But as someone who is still committed to the idea of establishing an Islamic state governed by Islamic law, walking out of prison into a nascent democracy has been even more disorienting. "Islam has its own regulations and standards that have been successfully implemented for hundreds of years before .Western democracy and capitalism" emerged, he writes in his peace proposal. A true Islamic state would not leave matters of governance up to the masses.
A founding member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad — the radical group headed by his brother, Ayman, until its merger with al Qaeda in 1998 — the younger Zawahiri spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s waging jihad in Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, and Afghanistan, where he fought against the Soviets as the organization’s military commander. An engineer and architect by training, he also spent time working for the Islamic International Relief Organization (IIRO) building schools and hospitals. The IIRO, based in Saudi Arabia, was later accused of links to militant Islamist groups, including al Qaeda, and was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Zawahiri claims he last saw his older brother in Azerbaijan in 1996, before Ayman traveled to Afghanistan to join forces with Osama bin Laden. At that time, al Qaeda existed mostly as an idea — a vision of how to spread the word of Allah being discussed by less than 100 fighters. Within a few short years, however — following the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 — bin Laden was placed on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list and Western intelligence officials had begun to worry about al Qaeda. Ayman was later indicted for the 1998 bombings and the FBI has offered $25 million for his capture.
Being the brother of one of America’s most wanted has haunted Zawahiri ever since. In1999, security forces picked him up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he had settled with his family and was working as an engineer for a construction company. He claims UAE authorities tortured him for four months — at the behest of the CIA — in an attempt to extract information about his brother. During that time, Zawahiri says, he offered to mediate between his brother and the West, something he believes could have prevented the Sept.11 attacks, but his overtures were rebuffed by UAE officials. In 1999, he was extradited to Egypt to face terrorism charges related to Sadat’s assassination and conspiracy to topple the regime — charges he denies and from which he was later acquitted upon appeal.
Zawahiri spent the following five years in solitary confinement in Egypt’s notorious underground prisons. There, in a 6-by-6-foot cell with no access to sunlight, he says, he was repeatedly waterboarded, electrocuted, and subjected to sleep deprivation. His family had no idea where he was, or even if he was alive, until it emerged that the United States wanted his DNA to compare it to a skull found in a cave in Afghanistan — one that might belong to his brother Ayman.
Today, following his release from prison, Al Zawahiri revisits his call for peace in a written proposal for a 10-year truce between the broader "Islamic movement" — which he says encompasses Al Qaeda and its affiliates — and the United States and other Western powers in order to end what he calls the "war on Islam in the name of war on terror." Nonetheless, the veteran jihadist is skeptical of Western journalists and blames the media for distorting his family’s image and convictions for decades. For that reason, he insisted on recording the interviews I conducted with him over the last few months; he was deeply concerned that his "peace proposal" might be misrepresented.
Dealing with his siblings and inner-circle of friends, one gets the feeling that they have suffered immensely as a result of Zawahiri’s dark past — repeatedly voicing their concern that speaking to the press could unleash another wave of controversy. When asked if his proposal might endanger him, Zawahiri responded, "I am only acting as a mediator to end the bloodshed. I am reaching out to my brother through the media, if there is good feedback and the U.S. authorities allow me, then I can convince him through people in Pakistan."
Zawahiri has already coordinated with an unannounced committee of veteran jihadists in Egypt and abroad who are willing to act as mediators in order to move forward with the proposal should the United States — which he views as the leading power in the West — respond positively to his call for peace. Similar proposals by Osama bin Laden and his brother Ayman were rejected in 2004, but Zawahiri thinks times have changed and wiser men are at the helm in the United States.
When asked why Western leaders would listen to him, Zawahiri responded: "The Americans know my hands are not stained in blood, and the proof is that I have been acquitted of two death sentences when they did not find a shred of evidence against me."
Zawahiri also says he has a proven track record, having been tapped by President Mohamed Morsy to conduct secret meetings with jihadists in Sinai, where he says he helped establish direct dialogue and attempted to negotiate an end to the ongoing military operation there.
The conflict between Islamist movements and the West, he believes, could be resolved through similar negotiations. The fact that the United States and other Western powers have shown no indication that they would budge on any of his proposed concessions does not appear to faze him.
Zawahiri thinks that militant Islamist movements pose a big enough threat that the United States will ultimately yield to his demands. "Hundreds or thousands of attempts may fail, but one can succeed and destroy the Western civilization," he writes in his proposal, citing al Qaeda’s attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and the escalation of violence in Iraq. "The next hit or string of attacks cannot be anticipated. No single group or persons can force themselves to control the situation or prevent it."
The would-be diplomat has taken the unusual step of attacking his prospective negotiating partner, however, by calling for demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo this week. "We the Islamic Jihad, the Hazem Abu Ismael movement, and other Islamic groups called for the peaceful protest," he said. "How would the U.S. feel if a prominent Christian figure like the Pope or a historical figure like Abraham Lincoln were portrayed in such an ugly manner in a film? This is not freedom of speech; this is a breach of the law."