In light of the widely reported news that Sayf al-‘Adl (also spelled Saif al-Adel) has taken the reins of operational leadership within al-Qa’ida in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be useful to Jihadica’s readers to provide a bit of context about this man and about the significance, if any, of these reports (see, e.g., Musharbash and Bergen), all of which rely on the testimony of Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

First of all, it would be more correct to say that Sayf al-‘Adl remains the operational leader of al-Qa’ida rather than that he has lately assumed this rank. (Nor is this the first time that Benotman has called attention in the press to Sayf’s operational re-emergence in al-Qa’ida. He discussed Sayf’s release from Iran and return to headquarters, as it were, with Der Speigel last October)  Several al-Qa’ida insiders have reported since 2009 that Sayf took the top slot in al-Qa’ida’s military committee after the 2001 death of Abu Hafs al-Masri (Muhammad Atef). These sources also evidence long standing tensions within the organization about Zawahiri being AQ’s second-in-command, next in line to lead should Bin Laden exit the scene.

This much can be gleaned from Abu Jandal (Nasser al-Bahri), the Yemeni former bodyguard of Bin Laden, who has much to say on both points in his 2010 memoir.  Abu Jandal broke with al-Qa’ida after 9/11, but according to him up to that point the chain of command in operational terms was clearly Bin Laden, Abu Hafs, Sayf, and then Abu Muhammad al-Masri (Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah). With Abu Hafs dead, Sayf took the operational lead as head of the military committee. As for the doubts about Zawahiri, at the end of his book Abu Jandal asks himself what would happen if Bin Laden died, and answers that while Zawahiri would theoretically replace him, “to me, Zawahiri does not possess the requisite qualities to lead the organization.” He goes on to say (translating from the French here):

“Bin Laden is a born leader. He commanded al-Qa’ida with a certain transparency, rendering him universally acceptable; he is open to dialogue; and he has historical legitimacy. Zawahiri, though, conducts his affairs in secret. There are numerous members of al-Qa’ida that would not accept Zawahiri taking over. His behavior and that of the Egyptians have generated a great deal of reserve, sometimes very harsh criticism. All of this has left its mark. His statements, as we have seen, are sometimes dismissed. I doubt he has sufficient authority for such a position, even with his well-known authoritarianism and his penchant for centralizing power in himself” (p. 281).

Much more revealing is Abdullah Muhammad Fazul’s two-volume autobiography, released online in early 2009. Fazul joined al-Qa’ida as a teenager in 1991, and his trainer at al-Faruq Camp – then located at the Haqqani compound at Zhawara, in southeastern Afghanistan – was none other than Sayf al-‘Adl. Fazul is no fan of Zawahiri, of whom he sometimes writes dismissively, as a Johnny-come-lately hanger-on. He repeatedly emphasizes that he is loyal to what he calls “mother al-Qa’ida,” and says that the “historical leadership” of this old-school al-Qa’ida did not change when Zawahiri decided in 2000 to merge up his all-but-defunct Jihad al-Islami organization with Bin Laden’s. Here are two representative excerpts, one from 2007, the other from late 2008 or early 2009, in both of which Sayf is clearly identified as al-Qa’ida’s operational boss:

“After we learned of the death of Dadullah there was a reorganization of the leadership of the old guard of al-Qa’ida. It was announced today [late May, 2007] that Shaykh Sa’id (Abu Yazid), who was in charge of al-Qa’ida’s financial affairs since its founding and was the first leader of the former Finance Committee, has been made the new Amir of al-Qa’ida’s branch in Afghanistan. This is of a new strategy to confuse the Americans and is the best way to turn the people to the new leaders…This is also to show the Americans and Westerners waging their war on us that they fail to understand our leaders and that the central leadership is fine. So the general Amir Usama bin Ladin is fine and in good health, and the financial leadership is fine and under the command of Shaykh Sa’id. As for the shari’a leadership, all of them are in Iran and living safely under the leadership of the esteemed shaykh Abu Hafs al-Muritani. As for the military and security leadership, it is no secret to anyone that the strikes in Afghanistan have proven the preparedness of these leaders. All of them are fine, and brother Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Shaykh Sayf al-‘Adl are both well and in Iran and continue the struggle in consultation with their brothers the field commanders in Afghanistan, such as brother Khalid al-Habib and Abu Islam al-Masri known as Shu’ayb. We were gladdened by the announcement of Shaykh Sa’id’s new amir position, as it came after the capture of our beloved brother Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hadi al-‘Iraqi, may God break his bonds. So long as the heads of the committees that comprise the mother al-Qa’ida remain fine, then insha’allah all things will be fine.” (From vol. 2, p. 310)

The following excerpt is from a lengthy discussion of al-Qa’ida’s quest for nuclear weapons (vol. 2, p. 499):

“I say that the mystery of the word al-Qa’ida is one that few have understood. There is the mother al-Qa’ida, there are the collaborators, and there are the Afghan Arabs who worked together during the Afghan jihad, and now all are characterized as “al-Qa’ida.” In the same way, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri is referred to as “al-Qa’ida” even before the unification and integration. He is called the number two man in the organization, but we don’t have firsts and seconds in Islam, all are equal before God, and in any case I have never once taken orders from Zawahiri. Although he became the deputy of the Shaykh [UBL] after unification, and followed the same management style, the number two man in the mother al-Qa’ida organization is brother Sayf al-‘Adl, after the killing of Shaykh Abu Hafs the Commander (God have mercy on him), and we do not take orders from anyone but our historical leadership.”

(For more on Fazul and the al-Qa’ida succession question, see Nelly Lahoud’s recent article here.)

That Sayf has been hands-on with al-Qa’ida field operations since 2001 is well-known; some of the evidence was rehearsed in a backgrounder put out by longwarjournal today.  (See also my profile of Sayf as of 2007, here at p. 119.) Sayf was responsible for forging al-Qa’ida’s ties with Zarqawi, as we know from Sayf’s own memoir on this published by Fu’ad Hussayn in 2005.  More recently, US military intelligence claimed to have intercepted letters in 2008 between al-Qa’ida leaders – including Sayf, who is referred to as a second-in-command in this context – and AQI, which show al-Qa’ida Central struggling to clean up Zarqawi’s mess in Iraq.  Less well known is Sayf’s role in the killing of Daniel Pearl. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad told FBI interrogators in 2007 that it was Sayf who tipped him off about Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and directed him to make an al-Qa’ida propaganda coup out of it.

During all this time, then, Sayf and Abu Muhammad al-Masri retained operational leadership of al-Qa’ida from their hideouts in Iran, but more recently Sayf and other members of the “historical leadership” have gone public again. Readers of Jihadica will know this already; I wrote about Sayf’s first batch of new letters here and Will has begun to shed light on the newest batch of letters here. What changed?

The story goes something like this. In late 2008, Iranian diplomat Heshmat Attarzadeh was kidnapped in Peshawar, and then sold down the river to Pakistani Taliban custody in South Waziristan. Iran, in pursuit of his release, sought the good offices of the Haqqani network leadership, who engineered a swap in 2009: Attarzadeh for Sayf and a number of other “house arrested” al-Qa’ida figures, including Abu Hafs al-Muritani, Sulayman Abu al-Ghayth, and several members of Bin Laden’s family. The story first broke in the Afghan press at the beginning of April, 2010, in a story in Pastho on Weesa.net (no longer available online). Abu’l-Walid al-Masri then posted a translation of the story to a forum, and at the end of the month Syed Saleem Shahzad came through with one of his characteristically colorful stories about the whole affair. Some of the details remain slightly fishy – why, for example, would Iran trade such potentially valuable bargaining chips for a minor diplomat? – but whatever the case it was only after this that all of the above-named folks began releasing statements via Abu’l-Walid’s blog. That al-Qa’ida’s operational commander, top religious cleric and former spokesman all released new statements on the website of one of al-Qa’ida’s most virulent critics, and not through official al-Qa’ida channels, does indicate a certain amount of distance between these men and Zawahiri, commander-in-chief of al-Qa’ida TV.

This is already a too-long blog post, so I’ll leave it at that and try to return this weekend with some comments on Sayf’s strategic outlook and what it might mean for al-Qa’ida if he, and not Zawahiri, were to become the face of global jihad.

UPDATE – May 19, 2011

Two further points of interest. Asra Nomani today shared further details about Sayf al-’Adl’s role in the Daniel Pearl case, pointing out that Sayf had advised KSM not to kill the journalist.

Secondly, Sayf al-’Adl is not Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi. Colonel Makkawi is ten years older than Sayf and a number of insiders who knew both men in Afghanistan – including Abu Jandal, Noman Benotman, Abu’l-Walid al-Masri and Yasir al-Sirri – have confirmed numerous times over the years that they are two different people. Both were officers in the Egyptian military; Sayf was a paratrooper and colonel in the Egyptian special forces before his 1987 arrest. Both fought at the infamous battle of Jalalabad in 1989, and around that time Sayf joined Bin Laden’s group and Makkawi remained with Zawahiri’s EIJ, though in the early 1990s he had a falling out with Zawahiri and quit the group. Sayf himself, at the end of the fifth letter in his most recent batch of communications posted on Abu’l-Walid’s blog, also emphatically states that Colonel Makkawi and Sayf are two different people.  The one photo we have and which has become ubiquitous in the press lately is indeed of Sayf, not Makkawi, though since that photo was taken Sayf was injured in his right eye. It is surprising that the Makkawi-Sayf confusion persists, given that Muhammad al-Shafi’i drew attention to this case of mistaken identity seven years ago.

  1. Excellent analysis, thank you very much! And while I believe your reading of Saif’s current job being much the same as the one he held before, I do believe there may be one interesting aspect in what Benotman relayed – which is that in the absence of an officiall declaration as to the new amir, Saif al-Adel seems to be the go-to-guy not only by default (which you would have expected) but also by consensus or even decision (which is a bit less obvious).

  2. Outstanding Vahid,

    Thanks to you and Yassin for running this to ground. I released some poll results today and few were tracking Saif al-Adel’s role.
    This is an excellent analysis and I’m looking forward to the next post.

    Clint

  3. PS For those interested: The APIEGEL article from last October discussing Saif al-Adel’s return to Waziristan is also available in English here http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,725181,00.html

  4. Brian Fishman says:

    Damnit, Vahid. You should have written this six months ago!

    Great piece. My only thought is that we need to keep a healthy skepticism about the Shahzad story. My guess is that we’re missing a lot. Even assuming Attarzadeh was IRGC/Qods Force, it is still a hell of a trade. How does that ledger balance for Iran?

    More to the point, any thoughts on how Sayf will go over with the younger set in AQ? Despite his recent publications, he hasn’t been reaching out virtually to new jihadis like others in the movement.

  5. [...] in the terrorist network, and whether al-Adel has actually been al-Qaeda's operational leader for some time now. But an underreported storyline, highlighted by Asra Q. Nomani in Foreign Policy today, is the [...]

  6. [...] in the terrorist network, and whether al-Adel has actually been al-Qaeda's operational leader for some time now. But an underreported storyline, highlighted by Asra Q. Nomani in Foreign Policy today, is the [...]

  7. [...] Sayf al-’Adl and al-Qa’ida’s Historical Leadership — jihadica. [...]

  8. [...] Sayf al-’Adl and al-Qa’ida’s Historical Leadership – Vahid Brown, Jihadica: http://bit.ly/mEdvJO [...]

  9. [...] quick parting note to a previously recognized ‘Knowledge Ninja’- Vahid Brown crafted an unmatched analysis of Sayf al-Adel at Jihadica.  Vahid started his research on Adel many years ago and introduced me to this key AQ figure when [...]

  10. [...] a Zawahiri-led AQ. (Another follow up poll I ran) But, many disagreed with my interpretation and it appears unclear who will ultimately become AQ’s leader.  (In my January 15, 2011 analysis, I used causal flow diagramming to pick the Haqqani support [...]

  11. [...] Jihadica, Vahid Brown writes: In light of the widely reported news that Sayf al-‘Adl (also spelled Saif al-Adel) has [...]

  12. [...] UBL’s death.  AQ TV leaders were largely credited with leading AQ in the future.  However, discussions of Sayf al- Adel illustrate his key role and suggest (correctly I think) that it’s those that do operations more than those that talk [...]

  13. [...] 2009 varias personas pertenecientes a Al Qaida habían afirmado que Saif Al Adel ya era el jefe de operaciones de la organización (también llamado jefe del comité militar) desde la muerte del también [...]

  14. Well we knew someone would take over, let’s hope his leadership skills and fundraising ability pale in comparison to his predecessor.

  15. Shahzad is now dead….

    Tammy

  16. Mamood says:

    Did you all see the videos that showed UBL dyed his beard? Who would have thought that aomng all the other things he was, he was also gay.

  17. A man is allowed to die his beard black if he is engaged in jihad. Check your library of Ahadith. You will also find it in jurisprudential works from the Abbasid Dynasty. (Al-Ahkham As-Sultaniyyah, The Laws of Islamic Governance, p. 362) and also the online “Book of Jihad” if it is still available.

    His actions, etiquette and conduct was based on his understanding and grasp of Islamic jurisprudence.

    Tammy Swofford

  18. [...] The AQAP organizational structure outlined by Dr. Hegghammer mirrors a relatively standard structure used by AQ for twenty years.  AQ, going back to their earliest interventions in Somalia, assigned different personnel to organizational divisions based on their specialties.  AQ further separated the divisions geographically as needed to prevent the demise of key nodes.  Raymi serves as the military commander and likely focuses on more conventional fighting, training and support with respect to AQAP’s insurgent operations in Yemen and regionally.  Examples of this position from AQ history are Abu Hafs al Masri and Saif al-Adel. [...]

  19. [...] The AQAP organizational structure outlined by Dr. Hegghammer mirrors a relatively standard structure used by AQ for twenty years. AQ, going back to their earliest interventions in Somalia, assigned different personnel to organizational divisions based on their specialties. AQ further separated the divisions geographically as needed to prevent the demise of key nodes. Raymi serves as the military commander and likely focuses on more conventional fighting, training and support with respect to AQAP’s insurgent operations in Yemen and regionally. Examples of this position from AQ history are Abu Hafs al Masri and Saif al-Adel. [...]

  20. [...] forum user Amal wa-Alam complains that the brothers are disparaging Sayf al-`Adl, the operational leader of al-Qaeda.  ”They are beginning to talk about him as if he is a [...]

  21. David King says:

    Obama For The World- world’s Obama tribute song! For Obama’s change & America’s freedom! http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/obama-for-the-world/id382415281?uo=4

  22. [...] debate, I again refer those interested to review the definitive post on Sayf al-Adel by Vahid Brown at this link.  Vahid brought up this debate nearly 5 years ago in some research he was doing and provides [...]

  23. [...] military officer who has been an instrumental military commander for al Qaeda over the years.  Vahid Brown provided an amazing story at Jihadica detailing how Adel was possibly exchanged in a prisoner swap between Iran and al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2009.  If true, [...]

  24. [...] of this latter faction were Sayf al-‘Adl, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, and Abu’l-Walid al-Masri. Sayf al-‘Adl (Muhammad Salah al-Din Zaydan al-Masri) was in charge of al-Qa’ida’s training operations in [...]

  25. [...] What al Qaeda members are still in Iran? – The open source belief has generally been that Ghaith was one of the last al Qaeda guys hiding out in Iran. There are rumors of Saif al-Adel but as I referenced before, Vahid Brown had noted there may have been a prisoner swap some years back. [...]

  26. [...] Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian jihadi, longstanding al-Qaida member and operational leader assumed the interim leadership of al-Qaida in late May. But Kohlmann says al-Adel, who fled Afghanistan after 2001 for Iran — where he was allegedly put under house arrest – never really stood a chance of taking over the group for good. “Al-Adel has always hid in the shadows, and he isn’t suitable for a public role. Also, his awkward relationship with Iran didn’t help his appeal among the Al-Qaida grassroots folks, who loathe Shiites.” [...]