Mohamed al-Zawahiri puts forward plan to end Muslim vs. West violence
He is the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
He spent 14 years in an Egyptian jail on terror charges that he denies
Plan calls for Islamists and Western nations to make changes
The brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is proposing to mediate a peace deal between the West and Islamists.
In an exclusive interview with CNN, Mohamed al-Zawahiri unveiled his proposal for the first time, saying he is in a unique position to help end the violence and that both sides need to make concessions.
As the al Qaeda leader’s brother, he says they are ideologically inseparable, and that if anyone can talk his brother out of violence it’s him.
He is like so many former prisoners I’ve met – calm, collected, focused and utterly convinced by long held views examined, tested and reforged in incarceration.
Mohamed al-Zawahiri is not a physically imposing man. His long beard is shading from gray to white, his features and figure drawn. Ramadan is long over but he still fasts until the sun goes down.
Mohamed spent 14 years in Egyptian jail on charges including terrorism and involvement in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat 1981. He denies the charges.
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For five years he was in solitary confinement in a cell 180 centimeters by 180 centimeters (6 feet by 6 feet) where, locked in with his own thoughts, he had plenty of time to plan what to do when released.
That day came a few months ago in May. He wants peace, he says, between Muslims and non-Muslims and has written a proposal that outlines the terms.
He says he’s offering to be an intermediary between Islamists and the United States and the West. “I don’t represent a certain group. My role is a mediator between the West and them.”
A source with direct knowledge of Egyptian government talks with jihadists in the Sinai says al-Zawahiri is helping negotiations. The source says al-Zawahiri has the respect of the Islamists and the trust of the new government.
Al-Zawahiri says his offer puts him at risk from radical Islamists, but says he is not acting from weakness or for personal gain.
His six-page proposal offers a 10-year truce if the following terms are met. In brief they are:
• U.S. and West to stop intervening in Muslim lands
• U.S. to stop interfering in Muslim education
• U.S. to end the war on Islam
• U.S. to release all Islamist prisoners.
The document also calls on Islamists to change their behavior too:
• Stop attacks on Western and U.S. interests
• Protect legitimate Western and U.S. interests in Muslim lands
• Stop provoking the U.S. and the West
Through his steely determination to get his voice heard and his message out it is hard to gauge how much hope al-Zawahiri is really investing in his initiative. Is he trying to get back in the jihadist spotlight he once occupied before his incarceration?
Al Qaeda diminished, but not gone
Back then he was military commander of Islamic Jihad that would later ally with al Qaeda. Back then he reportedly had disagreements with his brother about the way forward for the group. Then came his came his arrest, long before 9/11, picked up, he says, by Egyptian authorities in the United Arab Emirates.
He says he told his interrogators he could work a truce with Islamists but he says his jailers didn’t want to know. “If this idea had succeeded, September 11 would not have even happened in the first place. I hope this opportunity today is not wasted.”
Osama bin Laden had a similar proposal in 2004. It was followed a year later by the deadly 7/7 subway attack in London killing 52 people.
Al-Zawahiri offers no guarantees that he has some quick fix. “This is a very tough mission. You have to be logical. If you want to live in peace then you must make others feel that they will live in peace.”
He says his brother will listen to him, but admits he hasn’t talked to him in long over a decade.
While he once had standing among his Islamist peers, the reach of his influence today is hard to judge; being connected by blood to one of the world’s most wanted men only carries so much weight.
The cost, he says, of getting out of today’s conflict must be paid. “We want to turn this page and forget the past.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the terms are unacceptably high.
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Journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report