The United States State Department announced on Wednesday that it agrees with an assessment by the United Nations that al-Qaeda’s new leader to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri is Saif al-Adel, who is said to be currently based in Iran.
According to West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center, little is actually known about Saif al-Adel and his background. He is believed to have been from Egypt, where he was a member of their military, achieving the rank of colonel for the Egyptian special forces sometime in the late 1980s. At this time, al-Adel was accused of being connected to the Egyptian jihadist group Tanzim al-Jihad and being involved in plots to attack Egyptian government buildings. In 1988, he was said to have left Egypt after the charges were dropped, where he then traveled to Pakistan and joined a newly formed jihadist group called al-Qaeda.
From 1988 to 1992, al-Adel worked as a trainer and explosives expert for al-Qaeda, leveraging his experience from the Egyptian military. He quickly established himself as a key figure in the terror group and over the next couple years, he traveled around Somalia and Sudan training militants, planning attacks, and laying the foundation for al-Qaeda in the region. It is alleged that al-Adel helped train the Somali militants that engaged American forces during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Likewise, al-Adel was implicated in the planning and execution of several attacks, such as the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which left 224 dead and thousands wounded. He was also closely affiliated to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq that ultimately founded the Islamic State (ISIS).
At some point after the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, al-Adel was believed to have fled to Iran, where he was placed under house arrest until 2015 when he was released in exchange for a kidnapped Iranian official in Yemen. There are, however, conflicting reports on whether or not al-Adel left Iran between those times. It is believed that al-Adel has largely remained in Iran since, a charge the Iranian denies.
Al-Qaeda has not formally named al-Adel as their new Emir, let alone acknowledge the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed last year during a United States drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. There has been a myriad of speculation over the silence, such as not wanting to showcase ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban or not wanting it be known that the leader of a Sunni terror group is living in a predominantly Shiite country, which were pointed out by the UN.