It’s been almost a month since Osama Bin Laden was killed, and Al-Qaeda still has not officially named his successor. There are contradictory reports about whether his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri or a top operational commander, Saif al-Adel, have taken the helm. Whatever the case may be, Saif al-Adel’s influence will increase and his ties to Iran and criticism of his colleagues could lead to significant changes in Al-Qaeda’s strategy.
There are unconfirmed reports that Saif al-Adel has been named the interim head of Al-Qaeda. He is respected in the terrorist group as a former member of the Egyptian special forces who has been tied to various plots, including the 1998 embassy bombings and the 2010 cargo plane bomb plot. One expert describes him as “the most ruthless leader in Al-Qaeda.”
If the report is true, the fact that Saif al-Adel’s position is temporary indicates the group’s leadership is unable to communicate. This may also mean the leadership is concerned about al-Zawahiri’s status. The Pakistanis have announced that they arrested the Al-Qaeda commander who served as the courier between al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden in Karachi. Intelligence obtained from Bin Laden’s compound has also given the U.S. a better idea of where al-Zawahiri may be located. The choosing of Saif al-Adel over al-Zawahiri would also prove that there is apprehension towards al-Zawahiri within Al-Qaeda’s ranks.
The source of the original report was Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamist who is now part of a counter-radicalization group in the U.K. called the Quilliam Foundation. He says that he is in contact with senior members of Al-Qaeda. A Pakistani newspaper has also reported Saif al-Adel’s appointment as Bin Laden’s successor. It is said that Saif al-Adel will oversee day-to-day operations and al-Zawahiri will handle the group’s international relations, but not everyone is buying the story.
Terrorism expert Jere Van Dyk doubts the story, saying it is unlikely that anyone based in the West would be able to retrieve such information from inside Al-Qaeda’s inner circle. One of his sources that used to be close to Bin Laden also questioned the report. The rumor was initially posted on the jihadist Internet forum, Shumoukh al-Islam. The posting was deleted by the administrators because they believed only Al-Qaeda’s official outlets can be relied upon for such announcements.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has publicly pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri. A Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, says that its staff reviewed Dutch intelligence documents that say Al-Qaeda held a meeting on May 9 in Kuram, Pakistan. According to the files, al-Zawahiri suggested that Saad Bin Laden replace his father, but he had no interest. Al-Zawahiri then was officially given the top spot. NATO was told about the meeting by local informants the day after it was held.
There are reasons to question this report, as well. It is unclear how these informants supposedly gained access to the leadership’s private discussions. In July 2009, U.S. officials said they were “80 to 85 percent” sure that Saad Bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike after leaving Iran. Terrorist commanders denied it, but no proof that he is alive has come about since. An associate of Osama Bin Laden also said in 2008 that Hamza was the son that the terror leader wanted to follow in his footsteps.
The promotion of Saif al-Adel would be an admission by the Al-Qaeda leadership of grave mistakes. In 2002, he wrote, “We must completely halt all external actions until we sit down and consider the disaster we caused. During six months, we lost what we built in years.” He has criticized “mostly random” attacks and says jihadists must put more effort into “the greater objective…the establishment of a Islamic state.”
The 9⁄11 Commission Report says that Saif al-Adel opposed the 9⁄11 attacks but cautions, “The story of dissension within Al-Qaeda regarding the 9⁄11 attacks is probably incomplete. The information on which the account is based comes from sources who were not privy to the full scope of Al-Qaeda and Taliban planning.” Indeed, Saif al-Adel has written letters defending the attacks and Al-Qaeda’s strategy when criticized by his father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid. However, it is clear from Saif al-Adel’s writing that he seeks to modify the group’s approach.
Saif al-Adel has long ties to Iran that may become stronger because of the fear that Pakistan has been lost as a safe haven. According to Jamal al-Fadl, a former close associate of Bin Laden, al-Adel was to Lebanese terrorist camps in the 1990s to be taught about explosives by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He lived in Iran after the invasion of Afghanistan began, where he and Saad Bin Laden authorized the May 2003 bombings in Riyadh.
Al-Adel wrote that the terrorist group began “coordination” with Iranians so the group could transit the country safely, but expectedly denies direct collaboration with the Iranian regime. Top Al-Qaeda officials, including Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent their closest aides and family members to Iran. Saif al-Adel and other officials based in Iran even took part in negotiations to purchase three Russian nuclear weapons from late 2002 to the spring of 2003.
Al-Adel’s father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, is said by the Treasury Department to have been a key figure in establishing the secret partnership between Osama Bin Laden and the Iranian regime. He is protected by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and serves as a liaison between the two parties. While in Iran, Saif al-Adel’s cell phone would be detected outside of the country. U.S. intelligence concluded that Iran was trying to complicate intelligence efforts against it.
The relationship became strained in 2003 after the Iranian regime put top Al-Qaeda leaders under house arrest, though they still had the freedom to carry out important functions. Al-Adel says the Iranians “confused us and foiled 75 percent of our plan. A large number of young men were arrested including up to 80 percent of [Abu Musab] Zarqawi’s group.” The account matches other testimonies and reports that paint Al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran as being “half-prisoners, half-guests.”
In 2010, Saif al-Adel and some other Al-Qaeda leaders were permitted to leave Iran. The release is thought to be connected to Al-Qaeda’s kidnapping and freeing of an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan. However, this does not mean there has been a break in their alliance. Iran continues to support the Taliban, and the Treasury Department’s blacklisting of Al-Qaeda officials in Iran shows that the relationship continues.
Al-Qaeda is undoubtedly scrambling to find new safe havens after the death of Bin Laden in Pakistan. Saif al-Adel and his associates are likely to consider an upgrading of relations with Iran, out of necessity if nothing else. Regardless of whether Saif al-Adel or Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeds Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda will need friends willing to help them operate. Iran is willing to be that friend.