Sayf al-‘Adl and al-Qa’ida’s Historical Leadership

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.

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31 Responses

  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.


  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

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