The brother of the head of al-Qa’ida is reported to have been captured by regime forces in Syria. Mohamed al-Zawahiri is said to have been seized in Deraa in the south-west where he was meeting opposition activists.
Rebel fighters insisted Mohamed al-Zawahiri was engaged on a humanitarian mission and had not been involved in violent acts. They also claimed that he had, in fact, proposed a local truce to enable aid to get through.
However the Syrian regime is likely to try to capitalise on Mr Zawahiri’s presence in the country – if indeed they have him under arrest – as proof of their repeated charge that the revolution has been taken over by “terrorists”.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over as al-Qa’ida leader following the killing of Osama bin Laden, has declared that it is the duty of Muslims to take part in a jihad against the “pernicious, cancerous regime” of Bashar al-Assad and warned the opposition against depending on the West for help.
Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist rebel group with links to al-Qai’da, has become increasingly powerful in the conflict, overshadowing the more moderate fighters, and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, is said to be in personal contact with Ayman al-Zawahiri.
There is also evidence of groups of foreign volunteers, albeit not in large numbers, joining the uprising. Mohamed al-Zawahiri has, however, denied in the past that he wanted to get involved in the Syrian struggle. Speaking in Cairo recently, he stated that he had no plans to join the rebellion. Mr Zawahiri spent 14 years in an Egyptian prison on charges of being involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and taking part in terrorist acts. But he has protested his innocence and insisted that he now devotes his time to attempt reconciliation between jihadists and mainstream Islam.
Mohamed al-Zawahari is a former military commander of the Islamic Jihad movement, but has, he has stressed, turned away from violence. He claims to have been a conduit for talks between hardline Salafist groups in the Sinai and the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Last year Mr Zawahiri offered to help in negotiations between the US and Islamists and maintained that his attempts at reconciliation had made him a target for hardline Islamists who have accused him of betraying the cause. There is no evidence that his offer was taken seriously by the US administration.
The reports of his presence in Syria have come from rebel factions but remain unconfirmed.
Deraa, near the Jordanian border, has, however, become a stronghold for Jabhat al-Nusra where its “emir”, the organisation has announced, is Abu Julaybib, a brother-in-law of the former leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq who was killed in an American air strike in 2006.
Jabhat al-Nusra denied reports on Al Jazeera that Abu Julaybib and Mr Julani, who has been described as an emissary of the al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawhari, were recently killed in fighting in Deraa.