Analysis: Al Qaeda's interim emir and Iran


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Saif al Adel

Saif al Adel has been named the interim emir of al Qaeda in the wake of Osama bin Laden's demise, according to multiple press reports. Al Adel is a longtime member of al Qaeda's military council and has been wanted by US authorities since the late 1990s, when he was implicated in al Qaeda's attack on two American embassies in Africa. Another lesser known al Qaeda leader, Mustafa al Yemeni, will reportedly direct the group's operations.

US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal caution that it is not entirely clear how the post-bin Laden al Qaeda will be structured. They did not confirm or dispute press reports pointing to al Adel's and al Yemeni's new roles.

Al Adel's relationship with Iran will undoubtedly garner more attention now that he has reportedly assumed, at least temporarily, one of al Qaeda's top roles. Indeed, the early press accounts have noted that al Adel lived under some form of house arrest in Iran for several years following the Sept. 11 attacks. Al Adel's house arrest was, in many ways, really a form of safe haven. Al Adel has worked with the Iranians for the better part of two decades.

Longstanding ties to Iran

A former Egyptian military colonel, al Adel originally joined Ayman al Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The EIJ is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and burst onto the scene with the killing of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Sadat's assassin, Khalid Islambouli, was deemed a martyr by Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who named a street after Islambouli in Tehran. The EIJ has maintained friendly relations with the Iranians ever since, including after the EIJ became a core part of Osama bin Laden's joint venture.

In the early 1990s, the EIJ helped broker a deal between al Qaeda and Iran, which led to al Qaeda operatives being trained by the Iranians and Hezbollah. At the time, al Qaeda was headquartered in the Sudan, which was run by the notorious Muslim Brotherhood cleric Hassan al Turabi. Turabi was once one of Osama bin Laden's chief benefactors. Iran and Turabi's Sudan were friendly, too, with Turabi inviting Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members into his country to establish terrorist training camps.

One of Zawahiri's top henchmen, Ali Mohamed, told a US court in October 2000 that he helped arrange a meeting between Hezbollah's top terrorist, Imad Mugniyah, and Osama bin Laden during al Qaeda's sojourn in Sudan.

"I was aware of certain contacts between al Qaeda and al Jihad organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side," Mohamed told the court. "I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mugniyah, Hezbollah's chief, and Bin Laden."

Mohamed elaborated: "Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks."

During the trial of some of the terrorists responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings, other al Qaeda operatives confirmed that the training described by Mohamed took place in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon. Osama bin Laden was interested in the training, according to the 9/11 Commission's final report, because he wanted to replicate Hezbollah's terrorist attacks in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Mugniyah, who was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008, was the mastermind of those attacks.

According to the 9/11 Commission, the Iranian-orchestrated training gave al Qaeda the "tactical expertise" it needed to execute the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Members of the al Qaeda cell in Kenya, as well as some members of al Qaeda's military committee, received the training. Al Adel was among them, according to witnesses at the embassy bombings trial.

Thus, Saif al Adel's relationship with Iran and Hezbollah dates to the early 1990s.

Iran as a safe haven and transit point

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, al Adel, along with other senior members of al Qaeda's EIJ branch, fled to Iran. Longtime al Qaeda watchers were not surprised. For instance, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke writes in his book Against All Enemies: "There is, of course, evidence that Iran provided al Qaeda safe haven before and after September 11." Clarke adds:

...al Qaeda regularly used Iranian territory for transit and sanctuary prior to September 11. Al Qaeda's Egyptian branch, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, operated openly in Tehran. It is no coincidence that many of the al Qaeda management team, or Shura Council, moved across the border into Iran after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan.

Al Adel was a prolific writer while living in Iran. In his biography of deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Adel describes the ease with which al Qaeda operatives transited Iranian soil. With assistance from al Qaeda, Zarqawi set up a training camp in Herat province in western Afghanistan. Zarqawi was encouraged to do so because al Qaeda members and new recruits could safely use Iranian cities as transit points.

During a meeting with Zarqawi, al Adel writes, "We proposed the establishment of two stations in Tehran and Mashhad in Iran to facilitate arrival in and departure of brothers to and from Afghanistan."

Declassified and leaked documents prepared at Guantanamo contain numerous references to al Qaeda guesthouses in Tehran and Mashhad. Those guesthouses were reportedly funded by Osama bin Laden. Said al Shihri, the current deputy of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, facilitated al Qaeda members through Mashhad prior to his detention at Guantanamo.

As Zarqawi's camp grew, al Adel says he sat down with him again to discuss his progress. "He said the Iran-Afghanistan route was safe to travel," al Adel writes. The al Qaeda leader continues:

This passage was new and important to us in the al Qaeda. We took advantage of it later on. We used it instead of the old route through Pakistan, particularly for the passage of Arab brothers. This issue prompted us to think of building good relations with some virtuous people in Iran to pave the way and coordinate regarding issues of mutual interest. Coordination with the Iranians was achieved later.

Al Adel claims that this "coordination" was "not made with the Iranian government" but "with sincere individuals who were hostile to the Americans and the Israelis." Here, al Adel is clearly being coy. Al Adel's biography of Zarqawi was written for public consumption, and he has no interest in revealing al Qaeda's dealings with specific parties inside Iran, including the IRGC. Those dealings were, in fact, managed by al Adel's own father-in-law.

Mustafa Hamid, whose daughter is married to al Adel, is another EIJ and al Qaeda operative with longstanding ties to Iran. In a Jan. 16, 2009, designation, the US Treasury Department described Hamid as a "primary interlocutor between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran."

The Treasury Department explained: "While living in Iran, Hamid was harbored by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which served as Hamid's point of contact for communications between al Qaeda and Iran." Hamid facilitated communications between al Qaeda and Iran on multiple occasions and, according to the Treasury Department, "negotiated a secret relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Iran, allowing many al Qaeda members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran became an even more important refuge for al Qaeda. Members of both Osama bin Laden's and Ayman al Zawahiri's families sheltered there for years. Zawahiri, in particular, had long worked with key commanders in the IRGC. This is probably why Zawahiri sent his daughters and his son-in-law, who is also an al Qaeda operative, to Iran in late 2001. Zawahiri's deputy, Thirwat Salah Shehata, sheltered in Iran as well.

Al Adel writes that he "was the man in charge of securing the arrival of some Arab brothers to Iran and relocating them." Zarqawi "and his group were among them." Al Adel continues:

We began to converge on Iran one after the other. The fraternal brothers in the Arabian peninsula, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan, had already arrived. They possessed abundant funds. We set up a central leadership and working groups. We began to rent apartments for the brothers and some of their families. ...We began to form some groups of fighters to return to Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there. Meanwhile, we began to examine the situation of the group and the fraternal brothers to pick new places for them.

Al Qaeda received assistance from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's organization in establishing its post-9/11 presence in Iran. The Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin "provided us with apartments and some farms that they owned," al Adel writes. In addition to being a key ally of Osama bin Laden, Hekmatyar has also worked with the Iranians since at least the 1990s, when he fled to Iran. Hekmatyar lived in Iran until 2002, when he was reportedly asked to leave, but the relationship did not die there. For example, recently leaked Guantanamo threat assessments contain intelligence reports indicating that the Iranians gave Hekmatyar and another key insurgency commander $2 million for attacks against Coalition forces.

The post-9/11 relationship

The Iranians began to crack down on the al Qaeda network operating on their soil, al Adel claims in the Zarqawi biography, in response to pressure from Arab nations and the US. "The steps that the Iranians took against us confused us and foiled 75 percent of our plan," al Adel writes. "A large number of young men were arrested including up to 80 percent of Zarqawi's group."

Whether that is true or not is unknown. Clearly, the Iranians did take some action, detaining and occasionally deporting low-level al Qaeda members and their associates. But the big fish, like al Adel and Zarqawi, were never turned over.

The Iranians certainly knew where these senior al Qaeda operatives were. In late 2005, Cicero magazine published the explosive contents of a dossier on Zarqawi prepared by German investigators. The Germans concluded that Iran "provided al Zarqawi with logistical support on the part of the state." Zarqawi had stayed in IRGC safe houses and was allowed to move about freely, making his way to Iraq in 2002. If the Iranians truly wanted to stop Zarqawi, they could have. Instead, according to the Germans, Iran allowed its soil to become an "important logistical" base for Zarqawi and his men.

As for al Adel, he and other senior al Qaeda leaders were not "arrested" until 2003, meaning they spent well over a year in Iran prior to their detention. The reality is that al Qaeda's branch inside Iran was under intense international scrutiny as the threat it posed became transparent. The Iranians had to take some action, lest it be accused of directly supporting al Qaeda.

A key moment prior to the arrests came on May 12, 2003, when an al Qaeda cell simultaneously struck three separate housing complexes in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. According to press accounts, the cell was acting under orders from al Adel and Osama bin Laden's son, Saad, both of whom were living in Iran. Another al Qaeda agent thought to be responsible for the attack fled to Iran to evade capture.

Several days later, on May 16, another al Qaeda cell struck several targets in Casablanca, Morocco. The al Qaeda operatives in Iran were again implicated in the attack, as they were reportedly in contact with the Moroccan cell shortly beforehand.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, the CIA collected disturbing intelligence on al Qaeda's pursuit of lethal weapons while holed up inside Iran. In his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet writes:

From the end of 2002 to the spring of 2003, we received a stream of reliable reporting that the senior al Qaeda leadership in Saudi Arabia was negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices. Saudi al Qaeda chief Abu Bakr relayed the offer directly to the al Qaeda leadership in Iran, where Saif al Adel and Abdel al Aziz al Masri (described as al Qaeda's "nuclear chief" by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) were reportedly being held under a loose form of house arrest by the Iranian regime.

Al Adel told Abu Bakr "that no price was too high to pay if they could get their hands on such weapons," according to Tenet. But al Adel "cautioned" against "scams," saying that "Pakistani specialists should be brought to Saudi Arabia to inspect the merchandise prior to purchase."

It is not clear if these were real nuclear devices, or black market knock-offs. Needless to say, however, al Adel's "house arrest" obviously was not too stringent if he was allowed to discuss the acquisition of the world's most dangerous weapons. Tenet says that the CIA passed information about these activities "to the Iranians in the hope that they would recognize our common interest in preventing any attack against US interests."

The message was clear: America was watching the al Qaeda network inside Iran closely.

It was at some point in 2003, as all of this intelligence was flowing into counterterrorism officials, that the Iranians detained senior al Qaeda members, including al Adel. But even then Iran did not trumpet the arrests. "Although Iran detained al Qaeda operatives in 2003," the State Department reported, "it refused to identify senior members in custody."

For years, the Iranians refused to divulge the al Qaeda members' identities. In the meantime, various press reports indicate that they were allowed to communicate with the al Qaeda network in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan - potentially coordinating terrorist activities. And there are many reports that Iran has sponsored both Taliban and al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan targeting coalition forces.

Finally, years after their arrest, some of the senior al Qaeda terrorists rejoined al Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan. Saif al Adel reportedly returned to Pakistan sometime in 2010. According to one version of al Adel's release, al Qaeda kidnapped a senior Iranian intelligence officer disguised as a diplomat in Pakistan in order to hasten al Adel's return. Al Qaeda also reportedly got a better arms deal from the Iranians as part of the "hostage" exchange. Such are the strong-armed politics practiced by al Qaeda.

And today, after living in Iran for years, Saif al Adel has reportedly assumed al Qaeda's most senior position.



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READER COMMENTS: "Analysis: Al Qaeda's interim emir and Iran"

Posted by captainjohann at May 19, 2011 4:32 AM ET:

If this correct, then Adel will work for Shia/sunni reconciliation especially in Pakistan and bahrain

Posted by Samie at May 19, 2011 11:50 AM ET:

This also goes on to prove that how Iran has been working very steadily to weaken the US and its allies. This makes sense for Iran especially after it was flanked by US on both sides in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further as long as the nuclear issue remains unsolved, Iran will continue to support Al-Qaeda in an attempt to weaken the US and West as much as possible. If somehow an amicable resolution happens on the nuclear front, there is a good possibility that Iran can be leveraged to distance itself from Al-Qaeda.

Posted by Olof P at May 19, 2011 1:09 PM ET:

Seems strange that Iran would have anything to do with Musab Al-Zarqawi since he targeted shias heavily in Iraq? I actually doubt just that part.

Posted by kp at May 19, 2011 2:27 PM ET:

If Adel is at the top of AQ that changes it's complexion from "Yemeni/Saudi" domination of AQ (with UBL being the prime example of that) to something that looks more like EIJ with other North African fellow travelers. It may also change their focus from more global jihad to more interesting in gaining power in Egypt.

Or perhaps that focus (along with his cantankerous nature) was why AZ didn't get the job. I wonder how AZ is feeling about this?

Perhaps it's also an indication of a change in support from the Saudi and Golden Chain friends to Iran? How well can he manage his relationship with those folks.

Finally the IRGC and the Iranian government seem to have a similar relationship to each other as the ISI + Pakistani Army do to the Pakistani government. Lots of multiple games been played (though on the face of it the "civilian" Iranian government is rather more hostile to us than the Pakistanis). But it's something to keep in mind: these countries aren't Stalinist style dictatorships: there are multiple actors.