x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Al Qa'eda unveil Egyptian as interim leader to fill vacuum after bin Laden death

Some analysts believe the appointment of former special forces officer known as Saif al Adel is a stop-gap measure while it prepares the ground for bin Laden¿s long-serving deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, to take the reins.

An undated file photograph of Saif al Adel. Reuters / FBI
An undated file photograph of Saif al Adel. Reuters / FBI

An Egyptian former special forces officer known as Saif al Adel, whose name in Arabic means "sword of justice", is said to be the new caretaker leader of al Qa'eda following Osama bin Laden's death.

His appointment was announced yesterday by several media outlets, including al Jazeera, and a leading al Qa'eda specialist, Noman Benotman.

Mr l Adel's immediate challenge will be second-guessing what intelligence US special forces gathered from bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad,

Pakistan, where he was shot on May 2. That information could prove highly damaging to al Qa'eda operations.

Coincidentally or not, the Iraqi army arrested the alleged military leader of al Qa'eda's offshoot in Iraq, Mikhlif Mohammed Hussein al Azzawi, in a raid yesterday.

Some experts believe the terror network is keen to show the world that it has a temporary leader while it prepares the ground for bin Laden's long-serving deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, to take the reins.

But others suggested the appointment of Mr al Adel, al Qa'eda's third-ranking officer and bin Laden's chief-of-staff, was a blow to Mr Zawahiri and could presage a bitter succession battle, exacerbated by regional and generational differences.

Senior al Qa'eda-affiliated militants in Iraq and Yemen had already pledged their support for Mr al Zawahiri, a 59-year-old Egyptian surgeon. Neither he nor Mr Adel, however, is seen to have bin Laden's charisma.

Some analysts said both men could yet be challenged by younger leaders of the Yemen-based al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, which US experts have branded the most potent of the terror network's "franchises".

Mr Benotman, a former bin Laden associate who has renounced al Qa'eda's ideology, told CNN that the choice of an Egyptian might not go down well with some Saudi and Yemeni al Qa'eda members. They believe bin Laden's successor should come from the Arabian peninsula.

But in an interview with Reuters, Mr Benotman stressed that Mr al Adel's role was a caretaker one: he was appointed "in response to the impatience displayed by jihadists online who have been extremely worried about the delay in announcing a successor".

"This role he has assumed is not as overall leader, but he is in charge in operational and military terms," said Mr Benotman, now an analyst with Britain's Quilliam Foundation.

US prosecutors say Mr al Adel, who is in his late 40s and also known as Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, is one of al Qa'eda's leading military commanders.

He fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and helped plan the bomb attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. He also set up al Qa'eda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s.

But, according to some experts, Mr al Adel opposed the September 11 attacks, viewing them as too provocative and likely to trigger a ferocious response by the United States. Mustafa Alani, a Dubai-based political analyst, doubted yesterday's reports that Mr al Adel had taken on a temporary leadership role.

"This man was an opponent of bin Laden and the September 11 attacks. He criticised bin Laden personally, describing him as a dictator who took decisions without referring to his colleagues," Mr Alani told Reuters.

Even so, in a 2005 interview with the London-based Arabic language daily, Al Quds al Arabi, Mr al Adel enthusiastically explained al Qa'eda's motivation for the worst terrorist atrocity against the US. "Our main objective … was to deal a strike to the head of the snake at home and to smash its arrogance," he boasted.

According to unconfirmed media reports, Mr al Adel fled to Iran after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and was put under house arrest in Tehran. Now, however, he is believed to be back in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.

Mr Benotman said Mr al Adel was on good terms with Mr Zawahiri and that his temporary appointment would help calm jihadists and pave the way for the older Egyptian to take over.