Mohammed al-Zawahri denies he is a member of al-Qaida, but the younger brother of al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, shares its goal of global Muslim theocracies based on strict religious law. (USA Today)
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CAIRO — When the U.S. Embassy here was besieged by protesters who took down the American flag and raised a black Islamist flag that looks similar to that of al-Qaida, among the crowd was a man whom Western counterterrorism agencies are watching closely.
Mohammed al-Zawahri denies he is a member of al-Qaida, but the younger brother of al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, shares its goal of global Muslim theocracies based on strict religious law.
Jailed 13 years on militancy charges, he was freed following the revolution that ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and he has a message to the United States.
"If America does not stop (its) violations or attacks, there will not be just one Ayman al-Zawahri, but all Muslims will (become like) Ayman al-Zawahri," he said in an interview with USA TODAY.
"Our sharia commands us to stick to peace, to stick to Islam, to build our civilization, but if someone attacks us, our religion commands that all of us turn to be jihadists."
Mohammed al-Zawahri, 61, is portrayed by Egyptian newspapers as a leader of some of Egypt's Salafis, who follow a radical ideology. One variety of the movement is known as Wahhabism, which informed the beliefs of Osama bin Laden.
Struggling to read the small font on his cellphone, he conveys a gentle demeanor for a man who recently threatened that Westerners will be the "first to burn" in a jihad if the intervention in Mali against Islamist insurgents did not end.
The argument — justifying violence as a defensive measure — has a long pedigree in much of the jihadi discourse, said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
It reflects what various branches of al-Qaida like those in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Islamic Maghreb have advocated, Wehrey said, and is best outlined in bin Laden's 1998 statement "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders."
"This is the seminal declaration where they frame their struggle as a defensive war, and the motive there was the fact that the U.S. had actual troops on the Arabian Peninsula," Wehrey said.
In various neighborhoods across Cairo, many moderate Egyptians know little about Mohammed al-Zawahri, who was released from jail in March after an Egyptian court overturned his conviction on terrorism-related charges.
While Zawahri is respected in some circles, one taxi driver slugging through traffic in the capital reflected the views of many when he said Zawahri's beliefs do not represent those of most Egyptians.
"Islam is a religion of mercy, of forgiveness," said Hosni Saleem Hassain. "As Muslims, you can't go out and kill people. His words are nonsense."
In an interview with USA TODAY, Zawahri insisted that violent actions by Islamic groups against the West are a means of defense and that he supports his brother, who has a $25 million bounty on his head by the United States, in "defending the rights of Muslims."
"He is trying to defend against part of the aggression," Zawahri said. "We didn't attack the United States first, but they attacked us."
Yet Zawahri said there is "no organized or practical relationship between me and any of those groups in Mali, in Algeria, or in any part of the world, but what connects all of us is just one (thing), which is the Islamic religion."
Whether true or not, he is a vocal advocate for militancy. He was quoted by The Associated Press as calling on Muslims across the world to support the insurgency in Mali. Those who refuse are traitors to their religion, he said.
Still, analysts suggest Zawahri is unlikely to be one to direct jihads like his brother. He is not in hiding and speaks publicly, said Omar Ashour, a professor at Britain's University of Exeter and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
"In that sense he will not be able to (be involved in) any secret activities," Ashour said.
In recent months, Zawahri has portrayed himself as a mediator between the West and Islamic groups across the region in a plan for peace, which he announced on CNN in September. The peace initiative ensures the West a decade of protection against political violence and armed tactics if Western governments withdraw any form of military presence from all countries with a Muslim majority, do not interfere in their internal affairs or attack their beliefs, and release jihadist prisoners.
"If they enter into reconciliation with us, a real and just plan of peace that agrees with our sharia, the youth, who according to this sharia would die in order to obey sharia and God, would have to maintain security in the West," Zawahri said.
"This offer does not concern Ayman or al-Qaida specifically, but for all the movements around the whole world," he said.
The plan is essentially a demand that the West do nothing to impede Salafists from enforcing their agenda in Muslim countries, whether the Muslims themselves want it or not.
In Mali, the French have been greeted as liberators in Muslim cities and towns that had been taken over by Islamists who imposed the same kinds of religious laws Zawahri would impose. In Afghanistan, millions of Afghan Muslims have voted to support the democratic form of government that Salafists oppose and that the U.S. military has safeguarded.
Analysts said it is unlikely Western nations would take Zawahri seriously, and even if they did, he cannot deliver on his promise of peace.
"(Zawahri) is respected among various armed groups, and I think in the Sinai, he could exert some influence in calming things down," Ashour said about the area of Egypt that borders Israel and is rife with militant activity. "But at the same time I don't think he has that level of authority or leadership."
Zawahri acknowledged that he called for protests in front of Cairo's U.S. Embassy on Sept. 11. Demonstrators protested a film produced by an American that ridiculed Islam, he said, but many in the crowd were also shouting in favor of bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Although Zawahri said he called for a peaceful gathering, he seemed to have no regrets that the protest later turned violent.
"If others violently attacked, it's a reaction for what the United States allowed," he said, suggesting that the U.S. government is supposed to silence opinions that Salafists find insulting.
Zawahri exemplifies the change that has taken place in Egypt since Mubarak's ouster. Islamists who were imprisoned for years and tortured are now free to organize protests and run for office.
Many have questioned what the ascent of hard-line views means for Israel, which signed a peace accord with Egypt in 1979. Zawahri said it is a right of Muslims to reclaim land that was taken but that this should not happen at an inappropriate time. But in an interview on Egypt's CBC TV in October translated by MEMRI media service, Zawahri said that "fighting Israel, fighting the Jews" is a religious obligation of all Muslims.
In that same interview, he said he shared all of al-Qaida's aims but did not belong to it. To USA TODAY he said: "We seek to implement sharia law. We will seek and continue until we implement this."
Zawahri at first would not sit in the same room as a woman reporter for the interview, but then conceded to do so though the dialogue was held from a distance and he made no eye contact with the journalist. He was suspicious and denied speaking to his brother when asked.
"I think this question is an intelligence question, but I don't mind," he said, suggesting it was asked to help the United States find Ayman al-Zawahri. "If there is any chance for me to speak with my brother Ayman, I will not talk with him so as not to give America a thread to reach him."