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.