Commander Saif Al-Adel, one of FBI’s most wanted leaders named as head of al-Qaeda, is believed to be operating from the unruly Waziristan region after being freed by the Iranian government in 2010 in exchange for the freedom of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped by the Pakistani militants from Peshawar in 2008.
According to the most information shared by the US with Pakistan, Saif was set free by Tehran in the first quarter of 2010 along with several family members of Osama bin Laden, including his son, Saad bin Laden, after spending nine years under house arrest. Iran was compelled to release him in exchange for the freedom of Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, who was posted at the Peshawar Consulate as a commercial attache, and kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban on November 13, 2008, from Hayatabad in Peshawar.
The Iranian diplomat was released almost 15 months later on March 30, 2010 after being handed over to the Iranian authorities in Kabul, obviously following the release of Saif Al-Adel and others. He was subsequently asked by bin Laden’s second-in-command Dr Ayman al Zawahiri to proceed to North Waziristan and resume his role as al-Qaeda’s military chief. He was tasked with boosting up the military might of al-Qaeda against the Pakistani security forces in North Waziristan and stepping up cross-border ambushes against the US-led Allied Forces stationed in Afghanistan.
International media reports have claimed that Saif has been appointed the interim leader while the organisation was still in the process of collecting pledges of loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri who will eventually take over as the permanent ameer of the outfit.
Some jihadi circles believe that Zawahiri would remain second in command and continue to act as the chief ideologue of al-Qaeda, mainly because of the opposition he faces within al-Qaeda. These opponents say he does not possess the charisma of bin Laden; he is more combative, while bin Laden was diplomatic and calm.
His detractors further argue that the first generation al-Qaeda leaders, like Zawahiri, aged 60, have been away from the battlefront for almost a decade now - since October 2001 to be precise - when the US-led Allied Forces had invaded Afghanistan. They maintain that as things stand, the first generation of al-Qaeda leaders has either been in hiding like Zawahiri or has been arrested like Khaled Sheikh Mohammad or indeed killed like bin Laden. Therefore, they want somebody active in the battlefront and comparatively younger who possesses the requisite personal charisma to succeed Osama.
In fact, there are already reports in the international media about a looming rift within al-Qaeda over the question of Osama’s successor, amidst rumours that the US troops were led to Osama by none other than Ayman al Zawahiri, because of an intense internal power struggle. Al-Watan, an influential Saudi daily, has claimed that the Egyptian faction in al-Qaeda wanted to get rid of bin Laden to prevail. “Hence, it tasked a courier, who was working with Zawahiri to lead the US forces to Laden’s Abbottabad hideout in a way that does not raise suspicion among other factions within al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s Egyptian faction is de-facto running the group now.
The Egyptian faction of al-Qaeda led by Zawahiri took over reins of the terror group in 2004 after illness made it difficult for Osama to lead the organisation. The plot to get rid of Osama was hatched by a key al-Qaeda commander Saif Al-Adel,” Al-Watan report added.
If the Saudi daily’s report is to be believed, then Saif Al-Adal’s appointment as the acting chief of al-Qaeda seems logical, given the fact that he is a close confidant of Zawahiri because of their Egyptian connection.
Analysts say Saif’s elevation as al-Qaeda chief for an interim period could not have been possible without Zawahiri’s nod, who would continue to call the shots as the key decision-maker, with his right hand Saif at the helm of affairs. Saif, 51, whose nom de guerre means sword of justice, is considered to be a seasoned operational planner and an experienced field commander.
According to the FBI, he is one of al-Qaeda’s leading military chiefs, and helped to plan the bomb attacks against the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 besides setting up training camps for the organisation in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. He has been on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists since 2001 and there is a $5 million reward for information on his whereabouts.
The last position Saif had held within al-Qaeda network was that of the military chief or the chief operational commander, a role which put him at the pinnacle of international terrorism. Saif had in fact succeeded Mohamed Atef who was killed by US-led Allied Forces in an aerial attack in November 2001 in Afghanistan and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was captured in March 2003 from the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
However, after the 9/11 attacks, Saif simply disappeared. It later transpired that he was being kept in Tehran under protective house arrest together with dozens of al-Qaeda fighters and their family members, who had fled the US invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 and were being prevented from travelling further by the Iranian authorities. Once a Special Forces officer in the Egyptian Army, Saif is believed to be the nom de guerre of former Egyptian Army Colonel Muhamad Ibrahim Makkawi, who fought in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. He is purported to have been involved with the Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia, which resulted in the deaths of 18 US servicemen.
Having returned to the battlefield last year to resume his job as al-Qaeda’s chief operational commander, Saif is currently operating from North Waziristan while working in tandem with Commander Ilyas Kashmiri, the fugitive ameer of the Azad Kashmir chapter of the Harkatul Jihadul Islami, who is now an integral part of al-Qaeda network.