LONDON: The FBI's most-wanted list features a dated black-and-white photograph for the man wanted in connection with the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Saif al-Adel, reads the glaring red banner, alias Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi.
There's only one problem: 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 Qaeda'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 different picture started to emerge about al-Adel: that the FBI might have been working off a flawed profile of him that merged his identity with another person.
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 response to several questions, the FBI declined comment on whether al-Adel and Makkawi could be two different people or whether it was possible the information they had been using was bad or dated. It simply said al-Adel, like others on the list, had been indicted by a US 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 FBI will not disclose investigative steps, relevant intelligence, nor case details during an active investigation," said FBI spokeswoman Kathleen R. Wright. "This policy preserves the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of individuals involved in the investigation. Investigators and prosecutors routinely review information and intelligence involved in each case."
The apparent error describing the man believed to be a top al Qaeda military strategist and bin Laden insider highlights the patchy or false 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 Qaeda 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.
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.
A German man snatched by the CIA in Macedonia and tortured at a secret prison in Afghanistan is suing Macedonia for his ordeal after US courts rejected his case on the grounds that it could reveal government secrets. The man says he was kidnapped from Macedonia in 2003, apparently mistaken for a terror suspect.
A Canadian engineer who was also caught up in the US government's secret transfer of terror suspects to ghost sites was deported to Syria when he was mistaken for a terrorist as he changed planes in New York on his way home. The Supreme Court refused to hear his case against top Bush administration officials.
"You are going to have good intelligence and bad intelligence, but the problem is when that bad intelligence is used to charge and detain people or to build cases against others," said Ben Wizner, the attorney for Khaled el-Masri, the German who was sent to a secret prison and, according to Wizer, has suffered because of the trauma. "This faulty intelligence and disregard for the legal process has damaged and disrupted the lives of innocent people."