New al-Qaeda leader ‘based in Iran’

A new report from the United Nations, based on member state intelligence, concludes Saif al-Adel “is now the de facto leader of al-Qaeda, representing continuity for now.”

According to the report, al-Adel appears to have quietly taken over as leader after the killing of the group’s former leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an airstrike in Kabul six months ago. 

Al-Qaeda itself has been quiet about the status of its leadership following the July 31, 2022, strike that killed al-Zawahiri, but the report points to two reasons for the silence.

The report states Al-Adel’s leadership “cannot be declared because of al-Qaeda’s sensitivity to Afghan Taliban concerns not to acknowledge the death of al-Zawahiri in Kabul and [al-Adel’s] presence in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” 

“His location raises questions that have a bearing on al-Qaeda’s ambitions to assert leadership of a global movement in the face of challenges,” including from its rival, the Islamic State (Daesh), the report adds.

VOA reports that Western intelligence agencies, including those in the United States, have long viewed al-Adel as a likely successor to al-Zawahiri, describing the former Egyptian special forces officer as a capable commander with vast operational experience in multiple locations.

Starting in the early 1990s, al-Adel was part of a team that provided military and intelligence training to fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan.

He also helped train members of al-Qaeda’s Egyptian affiliate, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Somalis who battled U.S. forces in Mogadishu from 1992 to 1994.

The U.S. indicted al-Adel in 1998 for his role in planning the deadly bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed 224 people and wounded thousands more.

Al-Adel is also a longtime member of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership council, the Majlis al-Shura, as well as a senior member of the group’s Hittin Committee, charged with governing al-Qaeda’s global operations.

The UN report indicates that al-Adel’s take over of al-Qaeda has been somewhat smooth, and also that al-Qaeda’s propaganda efforts have become “more sophisticated and prolific” in recent months.

Some UN member states indicate al-Adel has been able to solidify or increase control over some al-Qaeda affiliates.

It is also believed that al-Adel is giving “direct instructions” to Hurras al-Din, one of al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliates, which is run by his son-in-law.

The report meanwhile indicates that al-Adel is running the group from Iran, which the US noted two years ago. 

In early 2021, the then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned “Al-Qaeda has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

“Tehran has allowed al-Qaida to fundraise, to freely communicate with al-Qaeda members around the world, and to perform many other functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Pompeo said at the time, labeling Iran as al-Qaeda’s new “operational headquarters.”

One counterterrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn meanwhile told VOA that al-Adel “certainly could move back to Afghanistan. He could move to other locations; although he added “it does suggest that he has such a cozy environment inside Iran and is safe enough inside Iran and doesn’t have to worry about drone strikes, for example, inside Iran.”

“Saif al-Adel is a guy who has worked with the Iranians for 30 years,” Joscelyn said, noting the new al-Qaeda leader trained with Iran and its proxy terror group, Hezbollah, in the early 1990s.

“The question is, what are the terms of the deal, and what is it Iran is helping them with besides giving them safe haven?” he said. “Those are open questions.”The US meanwhile has been offering a $10 million reward for information leading to al-Adel’s capture or conviction.