Who Will Replace Ayman al-Zawahiri as al-Qaeda Chief? One Name Stands Out

Saif al-Adel of Egypt has been on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists since it was created in 2001.

4 min read
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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar

After the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, who was taken out in a drone strike in Afghanistan's capital Kabul on Monday, 1 August, the terror group is facing an unprecedented vacuum in leadership.

It is not like 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after which al-Zawahiri, who is considered to be the brains behind al-Qaeda's terrorist operations including 9/11, was the obvious successor.

Nevertheless, there are a few names that are already making the rounds with respect to the leadership question. One of them is that of Saif al-Adel, according to the Middle East Institute, a non-profit think-tank based in Washington DC. What do we know about al-Adel, and what are some of the other names in the fray? Let's find out.


The Main Contender: Saif al-Adel

Born in the early 1960s, al-Adel is one of the most experienced military professionals in the global network of Islamists. It is believed that his real name is Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan, while Saif al-Adel, a pseudonym, means "Sword of Justice."

He joined Egypt's military in around 1976 and even became a colonel in the Special Forces as an explosives expert. Al-Adel may have been trained in the Soviet Union at a time when Cairo still had good relations with Moscow. He came to be affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), an Islamist organisation co-founded by al-Zawahiri.

Al-Adel fled Egypt in 1988 and went to Afghanistan, and joined an organisation known as the Maktab al-Khidamat, founded in 1984 by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri among others to fund, recruit, and train the US-backed Mujahideen soldiers to fight the Soviets. This organisation was the precursor to al-Qaeda, as its network was crucial for the rise of the terror group in the 1990s.

In the first two years of the 1990s, he was reportedly residing in Peshawar, Pakistan. Then he went to Somalia to train militants and expand al-Qaeda's network.

In a role reversal since his days in Afghanistan, he fought the Americans in Somalia with Russian weapons, leading a successful attack on US troops in 1993 (the 'Black Hawk Down' incident) in Mogadishu, according to a paper written by Ali Soufan for the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institution at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York.

For what is known as the Battle of Mogadishu in the aftermath of which corpses of American soldiers were dragged on the streets, Al-Adel trained anti-US fighters (some of them belonging to al-Qaeda) to use explosives and shoot missiles.

This was even confirmed in 2011 by Moktar Ali Zubeyr (who died in 2014 in a hellfire missile strike), the leader of the militant Islamist group in Somalia known as Al-Shabaab, who named Al-Adel as one of the three al-Qaeda leaders present during the Battle of Mogadishu.

Al-Adel reportedly joined Bin Laden during the latter's mission in Sudan after 1994, where they were sheltered by the extremely conservative Islamic government of Omar al-Bashir.

He then went to Yemen in 1995, around the same time al-Qaeda withdrew from Somalia, in order to create a Yemeni offshoot of the terror organisation. After Sudan expelled bin Laden, al-Adel came back with him to Afghanistan in 1996, when the Taliban had just take control.

The US government placed a $5 million bounty on his head, which was later upped to $10 million for his involvement in the embassy bombings of August 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya.

In weeks leading up to the 9/11 attacks, al-Adel, with the blessing of the Taliban, was appointed as the head of defence in the city of Kandahar.

He reportedly did not approve of the 9/11 plan, just like his Taliban counterpart, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Al-Adel did not restrain himself in his direct opposition to bin Laden.

He has been on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists since it was created in 2001. Since 2002 or 2003, he has been based in Iran, although he did have a stint in Pakistan around 2010.

Nevertheless, thanks to his connections in Iran, he continues to be based there and that makes his leadership situation a bit complicated. But there are a few other options as well, available to al-Qaeda.


Other Names in the Fray

Another contender is Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, who is the son-in-law of al-Zawahiri. He studied software programming in Cologne, Germany, but in 1999, went to Afghanistan, where he got his training near Kandahar.

With a $7 million bounty on his head, al-Maghrebi's FBI profile says that he can be "associated with the following countries: Morocco, Germany, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran."

Al-Maghrebi is known for his computer and software skills, that made him very valuable to Al Qaeda’s Media Committee, of which he later became director.

After the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, al-Maghrebi reportedly escaped to Iran, but then went to Pakistan in 2003.

He is believed to have been close to his now deceased father-in-law. In January 2021, the US State Department had designated him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

Additionally, according to a paper written in July this year by Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm titled "What Leadership Type will Succeed Al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri?", names like Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, who was an Egyptian leader operations commander, or Amin Muhammad ul Haq Saam Khan, who was the former security coordinator for bin Laden, are also in the fray.

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Topics:   Al Qaeda   Ayman al-Zawahiri 

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