Al-Qaeda’s Alleged New Leader: Who Is Saif al-Adel?

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Terrorism expert Peter Bergen reports on CNN International that the Egyptian Saif al-Adel has been appointed as a “caretaker” leader of al-Qaeda, following the death of its emir Osama bin Laden. A Pakistani newspaper article datelined from Rawalpindi, the bustling city near Islamabad that’s home to Pakistan’s army headquarters, corroborates the claim as well, citing unnamed sources. Bergen sources his claim to Noman Benotman, a Libyan and former Islamist militant who once flirted with al-Qaeda but now works for a “counter-extremism” think tank in London and is an oft-quoted authority on al-Qaeda’s internal leadership.

The decision comes as something of a surprise to those who expected bin Laden’s longstanding deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to fill in for the slain leader. Zawahiri will remain the organization’s spiritual patron, says an article in Pakistan’s The News International, and will “monitor international contacts,” but active command and control will be in the younger Egyptian’s hands. Whatever the murkiness surrounding al-Adel’s interim role, a few things about the former Egyptian Special Forces soldier are clearly known. According to the FBI, he’s wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in the capitals of Kenya and Tanzania; the 50-something al-Adel — his full name, meaning “sword of justice,” is a pseudonym — has a bounty of $5 million on his head.

He left Egypt shortly after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (a connection to the murder has not been ruled out) and made his way eventually to join the U.S.-backed mujahedin fighting in Afghanistan. Around this time he likely made contact with al-Qaeda and found himself rising up the terrorist organization’s ranks, moving with other key al-Qaeda operatives to Sudan in the 1990s, where he allegedly taught recruits how to handle explosives.

Al-Adel’s technical expertise saw him become one of al-Qaeda’s top military commanders and a key figure in bin Laden’s inner sanctum, a position which was reinforced after the death of another prominent Egyptian militant, Mohammed Atef, in 2001. What he did in the decade following the 9/11 attacks is unclear — some reports suggest he was unhappy with the movement’s impetuous handling of the terrorist attack, which precipitated an American backlash that effectively derailed a number of key al-Qaeda operations that al-Adel had been slowly nurturing over the years. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, al-Adel and a number of other prominent al-Qaeda members fled the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and ended up kept in shadowy circumstances under house arrest in Iran. But it seems by October last year al-Adel was back in the al-Qaeda fold, possibly moving among other militants in Pakistan’s troubled North Waziristan tribal agency.

Al-Adel will have to reckon with the immediate dangers al-Qaeda faces now that the U.S. has recovered a clutch of sensitive information from bin Laden’s Abbottabad residence. He also, says Bergen, will need to collect “baya”, or allegiance, from far flung al-Qaeda affiliates spread from Southeast Asia to Yemen to North Africa.

Baya was a religious oath of allegiance to bin Laden rather than to the organization itself, in the same way that Nazi Party members swore an oath of fealty to Hitler rather than to Nazism. That baya must now be transferred to whomever the new leader of al Qaeda is going to be, which is likely to be al-Zawahiri, given his long role as bin Laden’s deputy.

Still, as Bergen and others note, Zawahiri is not known for his charisma and doesn’t invoke the same sort of spiritual admiration among his followers that bin Laden did. The promotion of the more pragmatic al-Adel, who reportedly has had a fractious relationship at times with Zawahiri, appears to have been made in order to push al-Qaeda in a new direction. Here’s Der Spiegel writing on al-Adel last year:

Australian terrorism expert Leah Farrall, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on al-Qaida’s command structures, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: “Not only would Saif al-Adel’s return to the field greatly bolster al-Qaida’s operational capability, and bring a rigour to its external operations, but his longstanding connections to groups whose relations with al-Qaida have been subject to tension could herald a new era in operational cooperation for attacks against the West.”

And it’s the West, and the U.S. in particular, that al-Adel has in his sights. This February, five open letters to the Islamic ummah supposedly penned by him surfaced on forums that closely monitor jihadist correspondence. According to a thorough analysis on the Jihadica blog, the last of the five decried the tactic of targeting regimes and countries within the Muslim world that in some way serve the agenda of American “imperialism”:

[al-Adel] concludes by appealing to the “youth of the ummah” to focus their jihad on the mule driver and not the mules – to fight the U.S., not its client states.

Of course, it’s unclear what operational capabilities, if any, al-Qaeda has in its depleted arsenal to harm the U.S. It may be desperately trying to retool itself, but the terrorist outfit, like al-Adel himself, remains very much on the run.