By Christopher Hamill-Stewart
February 26, 2021
A former general in the Egyptian military could be the new leader of Al-Qaeda, but his confinement in Iran and potential value as a pawn in US-Iran negotiations mean that his vast military and terrorist experience may not herald a resurgence of the group to 9/11-era levels, according to an expert.
Saif Al-Adel, one of the most senior members of Al-Qaeda, has been tipped to take over from Ayman Zawahiri, who has not been seen in years and is rumored to be dead.
Al-Adel has been an active terrorist for over 30 years, and the US has placed a $7.5 million bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224.
He is also said to have been involved in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle in the Somalian capital Mogadishu, as well as having been instrumental in building the network behind the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Philip Riding, lead analyst for Middle East and Africa at intelligence firm Sibylline, told Arab News that, while Al-Adel’s reputation as a skilled leader and military strategist remains cause for concern, his confinement in Iran is likely to hamper his leadership capacities.
“Whatever Al-Adel’s considerable military experience — as a former Egyptian general — his isolation in Iran and ability to communicate with the remnants of his organization scattered across the world are much more pertinent,” he said.
“Saif Al-Adel is one of a number of high-ranking AQ leaders based in Iran. Al-Adel was previously under house arrest there, but in recent years has clearly been allowed greater freedoms, including the ability to travel abroad.”
He continued: “He is potentially valuable for the Iranians and they will be unwilling to see him depart permanently — men like Al-Adel and the freedom they are afforded are useful bargaining chips for Iran in its negotiations with the Biden administration.
“Moreover, despite potentially becoming pawns in the US-Iran confrontation, Al-Adel and the AQ leaders in Iran have few alternative bases of operation.”
He added: “These constraints will limit Al-Adel’s ability to implement any coherent strategy.”
However, Riding warned that Al-Qaeda, despite its leader’s confinement, still poses a security threat.
He said that the group “will likely try to continue to radicalize individuals or small groups in Europe, but there is little reason to think that they will be more successful now than in the past five to 10 years.”
European security forces have become more adept at thwarting the kinds of attacks Al-Qaeda seeks to conduct, Riding said, but other places may not be so effective.
Al-Qaeda “may prefer to focus its effort where its local affiliates have enjoyed most success in recent years.”
Riding pointed to the Sahel region, specifically Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, which has suffered at the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wa-l’Muslimin (JNIM) for years, as a potential area of expansion for Al-Adel’s Al-Qaeda.
Already, he said, JNIM “has freedom of operation over a large area of the Sahel and regularly conducts attacks.”
Riding warned: “If Al-Adel was intelligent and influential enough, and willing to do so, he could potentially push JNIM back toward launching attacks on Western targets in the Sahel.”