Saif al-Adel

Saif al-Adel is a senior al-Qaeda leader, who is wanted by the U.S. government in connection with the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.“Most wanted: Saif al-Adel,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists/saif-al-adel. In April 2003, he was arrested by Iranian authorities,Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/. but reportedly released in March 2015 as part of a prisoner swap between Iran and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of Al Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/world/middleeast/iran-released-top-members-of-al-qaeda-in-a-trade.html. According to a 2018 U.N. report, Adel currently lives in Iran and operates as one of the chief deputies of al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman al-Zawahiri. Adel has been suggested as a likely candidate to take over al-Qaeda following the unconfirmed death of Zawahiri in November 2020.Tim Stickings, “Al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has died, reports claim terror chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan from 'asthma-related breathing issues,’” Daily Mail (London), November 20, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8970231/Al-Qaedas-leader-Ayman-al-Zawahiri-died-reports-claim.html; Ali Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, February 2021, https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaidas-soon-to-be-third-emir-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/.

Born in the 1960s in Egypt, Adel was raised secular and studied business at Shibin Elkom University in Menoufiya, Egypt. In his early twenties, he frequented the Fajr al Islam in Shibin el-Kom mosque, where analysts believe he may have radicalized.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/; Erica Pearson, “Saif al-Adel,” Britannica, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saif-al-Adel.

Adel joined the Egyptian military and became a lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces in the 1980s. He was concurrently involved in Islamist activities with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ)—a radical group that aimed to overthrow the Mubarak regime. Adel was arrested in May 1987, along with 6,000 other militants.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/; Erica Pearson, “Saif al-Adel,” Britannica, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saif-al-Adel. He was accused of attempting to revive the EIJ and attempting to assassinate Egypt’s then-Interior Minister Hasan Abu Basha and journalist Makram Muhammad Ahmad.“Saif al-Adel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, accessed March 25, 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2011/06/Saif.pdf; Holly Fletcher, “Egyptian Islamic Jihad,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 29, 2008, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/egyptian-islamic-jihad. However, Adel was released due to insufficient evidence and promptly demoted in military rank. According to CTC Sentinel analyst Ari R. Weisfuse, this event induced both his travel to Afghanistan and his decision to join al-Qaeda in 1989.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/.

Adel played a crucial role in building al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities and quickly ascended the hierarchy. Because of his expertise in military tactics, he conducted explosives trainings, instructed new recruits on how to carry out abductions and assassinations, and helped develop guidelines to ensure efficient target assessment and intelligence collection.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/; “Saif al-Adel,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, accessed March 25, 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2011/06/Saif.pdf. Adel is believed to have trained several of the hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the United States.Erica Pearson, “Saif al-Adel,” Britannica, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saif-al-Adel. By the mid-1990s, Adel became head of al-Qaeda’s security committee, part of Osama bin Laden’s security detail, and Mohammed Atef’s right-hand man in the military committee.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/; Erica Pearson, “Saif al-Adel,” Britannica, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saif-al-Adel. After Atef’s death in 2001, Adel likely succeeded him as head of al-Qaeda’s military planning.Erica Pearson, “Saif al-Adel,” Britannica, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saif-al-Adel.

In 1993, Adel traveled to Somalia, where he established an al-Qaeda training camp that was later utilized as a base to conduct raids on peacekeeping forces in the region.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/. In May 1996, the Somali government expelled al-Qaeda. Adel, bin Laden, and other leaders flew to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which was not yet under Taliban control. Adel went on to coordinate al-Qaeda fighters supporting the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance. He also oversaw bin Laden’s security when the latter visited the front lines. The security of bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s organizational practices became Adel’s primary focus, but he also trained advanced al-Qaeda fighters. He created an intelligence apparatus that included some 50 people to vet recruits and reveal spies inside al-Qaeda.Ali Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, February 2021, https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaidas-soon-to-be-third-emir-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/.

On August 7, 1998, nearly simultaneous bombs exploded in front of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding more than 5,000 others. The attacks were directly linked to al-Qaeda.“Wanted: Sayf al-Adl,” U.S. Department of State, Rewards for Justice Program, accessed March 25, 2019, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/saif_al_adel.html; “East African Embassy Bombings,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/east-african-embassy-bombings. In November 1998, a U.S. grand jury indicted more than 20 people—including Adel—for their involvement.“United States of America vs. Osama bin Laden et al. - Indictment” U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/us_indictment_against_bin_laden.pdf; “Wanted: Sayf al-Adl,” U.S. Department of State, Rewards for Justice Program, accessed March 25, 2019, https://rewardsforjustice.net/english/saif_al_adel.html.

In 1999, Adel met with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and convinced bin Laden to invest in Zarqawi’s emerging Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group (JTJ), which would later be known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/.

In April 2001, Adel was informed of a plot that would eventually become the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. He had some reservations about the plan. In particular, Adel was concerned that al-Qaeda operated recklessly and did not consider every consequence, including U.S. counterattacks, which could endanger the position of the Taliban and lead to major setbacks for the group in Afghanistan. Despite his private dissatisfaction, however, Adel publicly supported the effort.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/; “Al-‘Adl Letter,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, accessed April 2, 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/harmony-program/al-adl-letter-original-language-2/. and https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2013/10/Al-Adl-Letter-Translation1.pdf.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom, striking al-Qaeda installations in Afghanistan in an effort to dismantle the terrorist group’s leadership and operational capabilities. The operation forced al-Qaeda to evacuate the area to try and save what was left of the network. In December 2001, Adel smuggled a group of al-Qaeda operatives into Iran, using a network of safe houses. While in Iran, he reestablished contact with al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and sent operatives to Afghanistan to support the insurgency and carry out operations.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/.

In April 2003, Iranian authorities arrested Adel in response to substantial pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/. Shortly after, on May 12, al-Qaeda orchestrated two major bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing more than 30 people. American intelligence suspected that a “small cell of leaders of Al Qaeda in Iran”—possibly including Adel—directed the attack.Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran,” Long War Journal, August 13, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/analysis-2-wanted-al-qaeda-leaders-operate-in-iran.php.

After 2003, Adel’s operational involvement with the terrorist group swiftly diminished, aside from occasionally publishing articles online. By July 2010, Adel appeared to have stopped playing any operational role with al-Qaeda and started addressing political developments in the region from a philosophical standpoint. In 2011, he published a series of essays on the Arab Spring, the semantics of terrorism, and differences of opinion regarding al-Qaeda’s failures.Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the al-Qa`ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, March 2016, https://ctc.usma.edu/the-last-hope-for-the-al-qaida-old-guard-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/. However, al-Qaeda wanted him back and sought to free Adel from Iranian custody, according to bin Laden’s files.Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran,” Long War Journal, August 13, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/analysis-2-wanted-al-qaeda-leaders-operate-in-iran.php.

According to the New York Times in September 2015, Adel and four other al-Qaeda senior operatives were reportedly released by Iranian authorities in March 2015 as part of a prisoner swap with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP had captured an Iranian diplomat in Yemen in July 2013. The Iranian government, however, denied the prisoner exchange.Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of Al Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/world/middleeast/iran-released-top-members-of-al-qaeda-in-a-trade.html.

A 2018 U.N. report found that Adel played a key role in al-Qaeda’s global network, reportedly acting as one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s chief deputies, while living in Iran. The report also implied that Adel and other senior al-Qaeda leaders based in Iran “influenced events in the Syrian Arab Republic, countering the authority of Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani (QDi.317) and causing formations, breakaways and mergers of various Al-Qaida-aligned groups in Idlib”“Letter dated 16 July 2018 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,” U.N. Security Council, July 16, 2018, https://undocs.org/S/2018/705.—referring to the controversy over the Nusra Front’s decision to rebrand itself as unaffiliated with any external or foreign entities.Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran,” Long War Journal, August 13, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/analysis-2-wanted-al-qaeda-leaders-operate-in-iran.php.

In late 2017, Abu al-Qassam, former deputy to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed that Adel was—although restricted to travel abroad—not imprisoned in Iran and free to operate.Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran,” Long War Journal, August 13, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/analysis-2-wanted-al-qaeda-leaders-operate-in-iran.php. This contradicts a previous report from February 2016, in which the Twitter account of Shaybat al Hukama, an al-Qaeda media operative, implied that Adel resided in Syria to aid against the Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War, according to the Long War Journal.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda insider returns to Twitter, discusses group’s global leadership,” Long War Journal, March 16, 2016, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/03/al-qaeda-insider-returns-to-twitter-discusses-groups-global-leadership.php. In August 2018, the U.S. State Department increased its reward for information leading directly to Adel’s apprehension or conviction from $5 million to $10 million.Thomas Joscelyn, “Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran,” Long War Journal, August 13, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/08/analysis-2-wanted-al-qaeda-leaders-operate-in-iran.php.

On August 7, 2020, two assassins on motorcycles shot and killed al-Qaeda deputy leader Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al-Masri, on the street in Tehran, Iran. Following Abdullah’s death, it was speculated that Adel was now next in line to succeed Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda.Adam Goldman, Eric Schmitt, Farnaz Fassihi, and Ronen Bergman, “Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Accused in U.S. Embassy Attacks, Was Killed in Iran,” New York Times, November 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/world/middleeast/al-masri-abdullah-qaeda-dead.html; Kabir Taneja, “Al Qaeda is battered, but don’t rejoice yet,” Observer Research Foundation, November 18, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/research/al-qaeda-is-battered-but-dont-rejoice-yet/. Unconfirmed reports of Zawahiri’s death in Afghanistan from asthma complications emerged in November 2020, boosting speculation that Adel would be named the next leader.Baker Atyani and Sayed Salahuddin, “Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan — sources,” Arab News, November 20, 2020, https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1765746/world; Tim Stickings, “Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has died, reports claim terror chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan from ‘asthma-related breathing issues,’” Daily Mail (London), November 20, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8970231/Al-Qaedas-leader-Ayman-al-Zawahiri-died-reports-claim.html; Ali Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel, February 2021, https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaidas-soon-to-be-third-emir-a-profile-of-saif-al-adl/.

In late February 2021, some British media began reporting that Adel is soon to be or may have already been named the leader of al-Qaeda. According to retired British Army officer Colonel Richard Kemp, Adel is highly respected among both al-Qaeda and ISIS. As such, some analysts expected Adel to begin recruiting from current ISIS fighters. Analysts told the Mirror Adel is a more effective leader than Zawahiri and could make al-Qaeda as dangerous as it was in 2001.Dan Keane, “TERROR TAUNT Al-Qaeda now as dangerous as under Osama Bin Laden as new chief dubbed ‘Sword of Revenge’ vows to attack, expert claims,” Sun (London), February 25, 2021, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/14159205/al-qaeda-dangerous-osama-bin-laden/; Chris Hughes, “New Al-Qaeda boss known as Sword of Revenge is ‘worse than Osama bin Laden,’” Mirror (London), February 24, 2021, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/new-al-qaeda-boss-known-23559133.

United States

The U.S. Department of State designated Sayf al-Adl a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224 on September 23, 2001.“Executive Order 13224,” U.S. Department of State, September 23, 2001, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/122570.htm.

United Nations

The United Nations Security Council added Sayf al-Adl to its ISIL (Da'esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions List on January, 25, 2001 (amended on December 16, 2010, July 24, 2013, and February 15, 2017).“United Nations Security Council Consolidated List,” U.N. Security Council, accessed March 25, 2019, https://scsanctions.un.org/consolidated/#alqaedaind.

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