Quilliam Foundation, Associated Press
LONDON — The FBI's most-wanted list features a dated black-and-white photograph for the man wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Saif al-Adel, reads the glaring red banner, alias Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi.
But intelligence officials and people who say they know al-Adel and Makkawi tell The Associated Press that they are two different men.
In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, AP reporters around the globe began hunting for fresh details on al-Adel — al-Qaida's so-called third man because of his strategic military experience. Traversing a reporting trail that spanned from Europe to Egypt and from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, a new picture started to emerge about the al-Adel investigation: that the FBI's manhunt dragged in the name of a onetime jihadist turned vocal al-Qaida critic who now can't get his name off the wanted list.
Intelligence officials from five countries and a handful of sources who say they knew the men personally over the years confirmed to the AP that al-Adel and Makkawi were two distinct people. Some of those sources came forward with two photographs that show two different men.
"That is certainly not Makkawi," Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who represented Makkawi in Egypt, told the AP after looking at the FBI's photo of al-Adel.
In emails seen by the AP, a man who identifies himself as Makkawi says he has tried several times to clear his name but to no avail.
In response to several questions, the FBI declined specific comment last week on whether it was possible the information it had been using was bad or dated. However, on Wednesday the FBI defended its characterization of al-Adel.
"It is fair to say that a.k.a.'s/alias known to the FBI and used by subjects listed on our Most Wanted site or for that matter for any individual being sought by law enforcement, can also be the names of true individuals," said FBI spokeswoman Kathleen R. Wright.
She said the FBI was confident the man on the poster was al-Adel, but offered no immediate redress for Makkawi over the possible use of his name on the poster.
"The distinction in this case is such that we have a photo and other identifiers that distinguish one individual from another," Wright said in an email.
She said al-Adel, like other suspects on the 'most wanted' list, was indicted by a U.S. grand jury. However, the original documents in al-Adel's case remain sealed, making it all but impossible for the public to see where the FBI obtained its original evidence or the basic details about al-Adel's identity.
The description of al-Adel highlights the questionable intelligence that often goes into profiles of top suspects by the world's intelligence services.
Many of the profiles are based on information obtained from captives under duress or worse. Some bits come from unreliable sources. Other tips are never verified.
On the surface, some may ask why the world should care — one man is a jihadist with a $5 million bounty on his head; the other a former jihadist turned al-Qaida critic. But the case raises a number of important questions about the accuracy of FBI profiles and how stale or misleading intelligence could hamper searches. Even with fairly good leads, it took U.S. authorities more than a decade to find bin Laden.
Al-Adel's profile, for example, was posted in October 2001 when the FBI "Most Wanted Terrorist" list was created — just a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Although some of the descriptive details may be old, the FBI says the details are still accurate and relevant.
"We have no information there have been any significant errors regarding the individuals in which we are seeking the public's assistance in locating," the FBI said.
Yet since 9/11, dozens of people have been wrongly mistaken for suspected terrorists because of faulty or spotty intelligence.
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