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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 July 2006, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Iraq al-Qaeda chief jail mystery
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst

Abu Ayyub al-Masri
The US has publicly named Ayyub al-Masri as Zarqawi's 'heir'
A prominent Cairo lawyer says the Egyptian man identified by the US as the new al-Qaeda leader in Iraq has been in jail in Egypt for seven years.

The lawyer, Mamdouh Ismail, who has represented Egyptian Islamists for many years, says he met the man days ago in a jail on the edge of Cairo.

He says the apparent contradictions in information may be part of a disinformation campaign by both sides.

However, independent verification is virtually impossible.

Picture released

This is a murky story, just like a great deal of the information involving counter-terrorism operations and the work of the intelligence services.

Mamdouh Ismail is a veteran Egyptian lawyer who was once an Islamist activist and an associate of Osama Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, before he left Egypt.

Sharif Haza told me that he has been in jail for many years now and that he has no relationship whatsoever with al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden
Mahmoud Ismail
Egyptian lawyer

Mr Ismail says that the apparent contradictions in the information on who succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq is possibly part of a disinformation campaign.

Following the killing of Zarqawi in Iraq last month, the US military there released the picture of an Egyptian man they said was the successor.

Maj Gen William Caldwell, the US military spokesman in Iraq, said at the time: "This is Ayyub al-Masri, probably the person who's going to be responsible for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"Ayyub al-Masri is a senior al-Qaeda in Iraq operative. We know he is responsible for facilitating the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Baghdad itself. We know al-Masri has been a terrorist since 1982, beginning with his involvement in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad."

The mystery militant

But according to Mamdouh Ismail, a security source within the Egyptian interior ministry has disclosed that al-Masri is in fact the nom de guerre of an Egyptian militant by the name of Sharif Haza.

Mr Ismail says that the American assertion could not possibly be true.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi rose to prominence as a militant leader
"Three days ago, I was in Turah jail," he said.

"There I met Sharif Haza and he laughed a lot about what is being said about him out there.

"He told me that he has been in jail for many years now and that he has no relationship whatsoever with al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden"

Mr Haza has been in jail for seven years on terrorism charges, says Mr Ismail.

The question of the identity of the successor to Zarqawi took another twist a few days ago when Osama Bin Laden said in an audio message that a man by the name of Abu Hamza al-Muhajir was the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr Ismail says no-one has heard of al-Muhajir.

He adds that the names being released by the Americans and Bin Laden, are probably part of disinformation campaigns from both sides, whose sole purpose is to confound each other.

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