The new leader of al-Qaida is a combat-experienced former Egyptian special forces officer with a $10 million bounty on his head in connection with terrorist acts that killed Americans and others, the United Nations announced this week.
More than six months after the United States killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an airstrike in Kabul, the terror group appears to have quietly conveyed leadership to Saif al-Adel, who is based in Iran.
A new report from the United Nations concludes Saif al-Adel “is now the de facto leader of al-Qaida, representing continuity for now.”
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Western intelligence agencies 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-Qaida’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-Qaida’s senior leadership council, the Majlis al-Shura, as well as a senior member of the group’s Hittin Committee, charged with governing al-Qaida’s global operations.
Some observers have questioned the extent to which any al-Qaida leader could run the group from Iran, with some describing it as a “gilded cage.”
“The presence of al-Qaida in Iran is a sort of a chip that the Iranians have,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former senior United Nations counterterrorism official. “They’re not entirely sure how or when they might play it but … it was something that they considered to have potential value.”
Others have flagged Iran as being a host for the terrorist group.
“Al-Qaida has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in early 2021.
Al-Qaida itself has been quiet about the status of its leadership following the July 31, 2022, strike that killed al-Zawahiri.
The U.S. has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to al-Adel’s capture or conviction.