x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Qaeda chief Zawahiri's brother says West 'must leave Middle East'

Mohammed Al Zawahiri, who has fashioned himself as a peace emissary for the Muslim world, says the US and its allies must leave Muslim countries and stop their wars in exchange for assurances that Islamic groups will not attack western targets.

Mohammed Al Zawahiri has warned of ‘an explosion of anger’ unless the United States and its allies withdraw from the Middle East.
Mohammed Al Zawahiri has warned of ‘an explosion of anger’ unless the United States and its allies withdraw from the Middle East.

CAIRO // The brother of Al Qaeda's chief has fashioned himself as a peace emissary for the Muslim world, but he warned the United States of an "explosion" of anger unless it withdraws from the Middle East.

Mohammed Al Zawahiri, 61, still carries a blocky, beaten-up Nokia phone - his only connection to the outside world during a 13-year prison sentence in Egypt.

Free since March, he has found some prominence after protests against the US made film, Innocence of Muslims, that denigrated Islam.

"This phone has a long story," he said in an interview with The National.

For him, the phone is a small reminder of what he called the anti-Islamic regime of Hosni Mubarak.

His presence at the anti-American protest at the US Embassy in Cairo last week underscored how Egypt has changed since Mubarak - a long-time US ally - was toppled.

"If America really wants what it says, to create peace, to prevent another 9/11 from happening again, let us make a peace treaty," he said.

Although Mr Al Zawahiri claims he is not affiliated to any militant Islamist groups, he said he shares the same beliefs as Osama bin Laden and his brother Ayman. He warned the West to re-evaluate its presence in the region.

"The current situation is moving toward an explosion," he said. "The Islamic countries feel a heat rising up within them."

He said the West could expect "unpleasant things" if it continues meddling in Muslim affairs.

"But if it is about occupying lands because of natural resources and strategic control over the region, then make it clear to your people that this is what you want. Tell your people that you are occupying lands for selfish, materialistic and economic benefits."

Mr Al Zawahiri's reputation in the world of militant Islamist groups is based on little else besides being Ayman's brother.

But some former US officials have accused Mohammed Al Zawahiri of being the right-hand of Ayman up to the late 1990s and overseeing military operations of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, which later merged with Al Qaeda. He denies these claims and describes himself foremost as a thinker about the importance of "jihad" and Islamist philosophy.

Sitting in the Zamalek office of The National, he appeared at ease among American journalists but struck an absolutist tone about what he sees as the US government's attempt to control the politics, religious life and everyday existence of Muslims across the Arab world.

"Muslims and Christians should be very close, but where does this conflict come from?" he said. "From occupying our lands, trying to force control over our economies, our culture and especially how we think."

He said the moniker "extremist" for Muslims calling for the application of Sharia was an example of trying to "occupy the minds of Muslims".

"It's like saying that visiting the Kaaba in Mecca is extremist," he said.

Under his definition of jihad, it is acceptable to attack occupiers in their own lands.

"Sometimes you are not able to defeat or attack your enemy in the land in which you are in, so you attack him in his home because he attacked your home and killed women and children in your land," he said.

Mr Al Zawahiri said his brother, who is about two years older, was the one that helped him learn about the jihadist way of thinking in the 1960s. Their family lived in the suburb of Maadi, south of Cairo's city centre. Ayman studied to be a doctor, while Mohammed trained as an architect.

Ayman began meeting with like-minded Islamist friends at their homes and mosques, where they discussed the works of Sayyid Qutb and other luminaries of political Islam.

"He became deep into religion, he dedicated himself to Islam, and I was inspired," Mr Al Zawahiri said.

He travelled to Saudi Arabia in 1975, where he worked for 17 years at a construction company.

While Mohammed was there, Ayman was arrested in 1981 as part of a broad sweep up of Islamists after the assassination of Anwar Sadat by members of an Islamist group. During the subsequent investigation, Mohammed was also accused of participating in Islamist groups, he said.

"I was not a part of any group, but they arrested and accused everyone, especially the brothers of people in these groups," he said.

The sentence meant he could not safely return to Egypt. Ayman joined him in Saudi Arabia after he was released from prison.

Mohammed, then working for the World Islamic Relief Organisation, travelled to Yemen while his brother went to Sudan. Mohammed then moved to Sudan to join his brother, before returning to Yemen.

Ayman went to Afghanistan in the 1980s, where he forged a close relationship with bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who was supporting the Afghan mujaheddin fight the Russians.

In the late 1990s, Mohammed Al Zawahiri was sentenced to death in absentia in a major case known as the "Returnees of Albania", which was named because of a number of the accused Islamist extremists had been brought back to Egypt from Albania through "extraordinary renditions" facilitated in conjunction with the US's Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1999, Mohammed Al Zawahiri was arrested in the UAE and transported to Egypt. For five years, he disappeared from the world. His family only found out he was alive when Egyptian media reported that the CIA sought a sample of his DNA to determine whether a corpse recovered in Afghanistan was that of his brother.

His release from prison in March was dizzying and exhilarating, Mr Al Zawahiri said. The buildings were taller than he remembered and the streets more crowded, but most of all there is freedom of expression, he said.

"There is no fear of expressing yourself like before," he said. "You sleep in your home and you feel safe."

He has enrolled in a master's programme for architectural engineering at Cairo University, but he has also dedicated himself to speaking to the world about the importance of jihad.

"The West must understand that the jihadists do not want killing, that they are looking to live in peace in the way that real Islam is applied in their own country," he said.

"All of the jihadists believe foremost in one thing, that they will give up their lives because it is in obedience to God and God's law," Mr Al Zawahiri said. "If we make this treaty between Muslims and the West, then the jihadists will adhere to it with the same passion that they gave their lives to jihad ... leave us in peace and we will leave you in peace."

bhope@thenational.ae

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