London / Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – According to a number of media reports, the Egyptian jihadist Saif Al-Adel has been appointed the interim leader of the terrorist Al Qaeda organization, following the death of Osama Bin Laden. Saif Al-Adel, an assumed name which translates to mean “sword of justice”, is an extremely mysterious figure, and information about him is scarce.
Saif Al-Adel is thought to have masterminded the 7 August 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The United States State Department’s Reward for Justice Program is offering $5 million for any information leading to Saif Al-Adel’s location. According to the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, Saif Al-Adel is wanted by the United States for “Conspiracy to kill United States nationals, to murder, to destroy buildings and property of the United States, and to destroy the National Defense utilities of the United States.”
Saif Al-Adel is an Egyptian, thought to be around 50 years old, with the FBI website giving him a date of birth of 11 April, 1960 or 1963. The FBI lists his height, weight, and build as unknown. As for any distinguishing scars or marks, this is listed as “none known.” The FBI lists Saif Al-Adel’s hair and eyes as being “dark”, and his complexion “olive.” There is only one known photograph of the Egyptian jihadist; a black and white passport photograph that depicts a clean-shaven and intense looking man. It is unknown how old Saif Al-Adel is in this photograph, or whether this image bears any resemblance to him today.
Many believe Saif Al-Adel to be a former Egyptian army officer, who left the military to join the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, led by Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, which is suspected of being responsible for the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Saif Al-Adel reportedly left Egypt in the late 1980s to join the Arab mujahedeen in confronting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Following the merger between Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization, and al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, Saif Al-Adel ascended the ranks, becoming Al Qaeda’s operational military commander and the “third man” in Al Qaeda.
A former associate of Osama Bin Laden’s, Libyan Al Qaeda expert Noman Benotman, who is a Senior Analyst (Strategic Communications) at the Quilliam anti-terror think-tank personally met with Saif Al-Adel during the jihadist struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In a previous interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Benotman stated that the picture of Saif Al-Adel’s photograph on the FBI’s website is genuine.
Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who renounced violence following the 9/11 attacks, also told Asharq Al-Awsat that Saif Al-Adel is the son-in-law of Al Qaeda ideologue Abu Walid al-Masri. Benotman claimed that Saif Al-Adel had five children from his marriage to the daughter of Abu Walid al-Masri, and that they were all living in Kabul when the US first began its invasion of Afghanistan. During this period, Saif Al-Adel’s father-in-law worked as editor of the “Islamic Principality” journal, a publication that was regarded as the mouthpiece of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Benotman is the source of the media reports that Saif Al-Adel has been appointed the interim leader of Al Qaeda. Benotman told CNN and Reuters that Saif Al-Adel has been chosen as “caretaker” leader of Al Qaeda, until a successor to Bin Laden is formally announced.
The FBI most wanted website, in addition to many media websites, have reported that one of Saif Al-Adel’s aliases is Muhamad Ibrahim Makkawi. However Asharq Al-Awsat can reveal that Makkawi, a former Egyptian army Colonel, is not an alias of Saif Al-Adel, but is the name of another senior member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. Noman Benotman previously informed Asharq Al-Awsat that he had met both Makkawi and Saif Al-Adel in Afghanistan, stressing that Makkawi was almost ten years older than Al-Adel. Makkawi is believed today to be living in Islamabad, after strongly falling out with Osama Bin Laden.
Reports indicate that Saif Al-Adel was responsible for training Al Qaeda recruits on how to make and use explosives, and that he also commanded a special base for such training in Somalia. Saif Al-Adel is also said to have trained Al Qaeda recruits in a number of countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan.
There is conflicting information as to Saif Al-Adel’s position and role in the September 11 attacks, with some saying that he opposed these attacks, whilst others claiming that he personally oversaw the training of some of the 9/11 hijackers.
In 2004, Saif Al-Adel published a so-called “terrorist manual” entitled “The Base of the Vanguard” an Arabic pun on the name Al Qaeda and a branch of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad called the “Vanguard of Conquest.”
Saif Al-Adel was also revealed to have ties to Al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq, through a statement attributed to the Egyptian jihadist published on a number of fundamentalist internet websites in 2005. In this statement, it was revealed that Saif Al-Adel had recruited Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Al Qaeda. Al-Zarqawi later led the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization, being responsible for a number of high profile terrorist operations in the country, and potentially hundreds of deaths. In the internet statement, Saif Al-Adel reportedly said “we were not surprised when we learned that Abu Musab [al-Zarqawi] and some brothers had arrived in Pakistan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…did not need to be recommended to us, we had followed the [Jordanian] trials, and had witnessed the ideas that he had presented in these trials. This was enough for us to welcome him.”
As for the 9/11 attacks, Saif Al-Adel said that “Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi had no prior knowledge of these attacks, but knew some details after the strike took place”. He added “we explained the aim of the 11 September attacks to Al-Zarqawi and provided him with some important details of our targets.” Following this, Al Qaeda plotted to expand its conflict with America to Iraq, appointing Al-Zarqawi the emir of an Al Qaeda franchise there.
The latest reports about Saif Al-Adel indicate that he may have been held under house arrest in Iran, before being released from custody about a year ago. He is believed to have returned to the Pakistan – Afghanistan border region. All of this indicates that the shadowy interim leader of Al Qaeda is well-respected, and indeed an effective and efficient military leader, who ultimately may prove to be more dangerous than Osama Bin Laden.