Dispatch

Brother of Al Qaeda Leader Offers Peace Plan

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.

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."

AFP/ Getty Images

Dispatch

The Silent Hand of Saleh

Was the security lapse at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa a move by Yemen's former president to show America who still calls the shots?

SANAA, Yemen — As black smoke billowed into the sky above the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Thursday, Sept. 13, demonstrators hacked at the thick glass windows of the security office entrance with pick axes. To the cry of "Death to America!" the angry mob burned an American flag and set SUVs alight inside the heavily guarded compound.

But something was not quite right. How had a few hundred unarmed protesters managed to breach the security of one of the most fortified embassies in the world?

The beginning of the answer to that question lay at the outer perimeters of the security cordon and at roadblocks on the streets approaching the U.S. embassy.

As protesters stood chanting on low concrete blocks designed to stop vehicles approaching the compound, Yemen's Central Security Forces, in their camouflage uniforms, blue berets, and distinctive bright blue-and-orange arm patches looked on. Fifty-caliber machine gun "dushkas" mounted on the back of pick-up trucks, stationed under sun-protecting shelters, menacingly faced the crowd.

Then, without so much as a raised hand from the soldiers, protesters walked straight though the gaps between the yellow and black striped blocks. Like a gentleman holding a door open for a lady, the soldiers, with their AK-47s slung over their shoulders, stepped back, letting the chanting mob through. And as the angry mob marched further towards the embassy building itself the soldiers walked with them, some even smiling.

Yemen's Central Security Forces, created by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, remain under the command of his nephew Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, who enjoyed a warm relationship with the U.S. embassy here in Sanaa for years. The U.S.-trained and funded counterterrorism troops also fell under his command. The relationship had been a necessary close one in America's strategy to combat the country's notorious al Qaeda network.

On the day this February when his uncle handed over power to the country's new president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi, at the presidential palace, Yahya and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein greeted each other like old friends. With laughter and a firm, lingering handshake, they clasped each other's elbows in the midst of a packed room of dignitaries and a throng of domestic and international media.

Since February, however, things have slowly begun to change in Yemen's security forces. The powerful extended-family network of commanders -- created by Yemen's former ruler -- has been eroded. Hadi's presidential decrees, released over recent weeks and months, have shifted military leaders to lesser positions and altered the long-standing alignment of control in the country's divided armed forces. During a year of political unrest, Yemen's army split following the massacre of 53 demonstrators in Sanaa's Change Square on March 18, 2011. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, one of the country's most powerful commanders, defected, throwing the weight of his First Armored Division behind the anti-Saleh protest movement.

After an attempt on Saleh's life in June 2011 saw the injured president whisked away to neighboring Saudi Arabia for much needed medical care, the two sides of the army eventually came to blows. In September, when the violence peaked, civil war seemed almost inevitable. But following Saleh's surprise return to Sanaa, resulting in further bouts of fighting, he finally agreed to step down in November 2011, handing power to his long-standing vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi. Dramatic changes in the structure of Yemen's military appeared essential to the process of political transition and the survival of his successor.

But it hasn't been an easy transition: In April 2012, when Saleh's half-brother and commander of the air force, Gen. Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, refused to step down, pick-up trucks full of gunmen, protesting his sacking, forced the closure of the Sanaa airport, which also acts as Yemen's primary air force base.

So far, Yahya has largely managed to avoid much of the impact of the recent changes: He has yet to have his power undermined by being either being sacked from his position or moved to a lesser role, unlike his cousin, Tareq Saleh, who was previously head of the Presidential Guard and decided to retire rather than accept a new post under Hadi's reforms. But the future prospects of Yahya maintaining his command look bleak. And Yemen's ruling clans don't go down without a fight; many here expected, and still anticipate, a backlash from the Salehs. And with the former president still living in central Sanaa, the presence and influence of his 33-year-long reign remains.

Collusion between security forces and the Saleh family over Thursday's events at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa would not be the first of its type. The supposedly spontaneous protests bore a striking resemblance to an embassy siege in Sanaa last year that many believe was orchestrated to prove a point.

Amid growing protests in Sanaa, on May 22, 2011 -- Yemen's day of celebration for unification with the south -- the international community was expecting Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council deal that would see him hand over power. As Sanaa's foreign diplomats eagerly gathered in the United Arab Emirates embassy building, an angry mob arrived outside. In an apparent protest at the prospect of an end to Saleh's presidency, men wielding AK-47s and traditional jambiya daggers trapped the ambassadors inside. Only a blatant disregard for external security, with soldiers choosing to look the other way, would have made such an event possible.

The siege ended only when Saleh valiantly sent his helicopters in to pluck the foreign dignitaries from the roof of the building in a serial rescue mission. The whole scenario felt like a scripted movie scene that even Hollywood would have scoffed at being just too far-fetched. But this was a classic Saleh plot. It would be another six months, under increasing pressure and after all-out war had broken out in the capital, before he eventually relinquished and signed the agreement to transfer power.

Hadi's relationship with the United States has already proved to be stronger than his predecessor's in the eyes of Washington. U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan boasted about the better-than-ever relationship in a speech in August saying, "since President Hadi has assumed the presidency, there is a new determination, a new consistency in terms of what the Yemeni government is doing on counterterrorism." Any undermining of that relationship, say a well-timed attack on the U.S. Embassy, could play into the hands of the Salehs, particularly Yahya, whose position in Yemen's military is under threat with Hadi's ongoing restructuring plans.

Following Thursday's scenes in the northeast of the capital, even President Hadi himself eluded to the ease with which demonstrators were able to breach security. In a statement released in apology to the United States and Barack Obama, he added that the storming of the U.S. embassy compound  "highlighted that the divisions among Yemen's security and military forces...have contributed to the amplification of the incident."

Conspiracy theories abound in Yemen, cemented by a three-decade-long opaque system of governance and a heavily partisan and polarized press. And the rumors are flying that a little well-timed chaos seems a perfect cover for the continued meddling of the Salehs in Yemen's fragile period of political transition. Perfect, so long as it doesn't get way out of hand.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages