In recent days, pro-al Qaeda jihadists claimed to confirm a recent news report saying that several senior al Qaeda leaders have been released from Iranian custody. Sky News reported earlier this week that five veteran jihadists were released in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped in Yemen. Several jihadists on Twitter who are connected to al Qaeda have said the report is accurate. One of them is known as “Al Siyasi al Mutaqa’id,” who has relayed accurate information on al Qaeda in the past.
The five jihadists who were reportedly freed are: Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri, Abu Khayr al Masri, Khalid al Aruri and Sari Shihab. The first three are well-known senior al Qaeda leaders who have served in elite management and advisory positions within the group. In addition, Saif al Adel and Abu Mohammed al Masri have long been wanted for their role in the August 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Al Aruri was a senior lieutenant to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq.
It appears that al Qaeda has been preparing to reintroduce Saif al Adel as a prominent figure.
In late August, for instance, al Adel’s eulogy of Abu Khalid al Suri, an al Qaeda veteran who served as both a senior figure in Ahrar al Sham and as Ayman al Zawahiri’s representative in Syria, was posted online. (The image accompanying the eulogy can be seen on the right.) Al Suri was killed in February 2014, presumably by fighters dispatched by the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s jihadist rival. Al Suri, who was assigned by Zawahiri to broker a truce between Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization and Al Nusrah Front (al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria), was one of the Islamic State’s harshest critics at the time of his demise.
In his eulogy, Al Adel described al Suri as the “lion of Jihad Wahl,” a training camp in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Al Adel remembered al Suri’s time training the “youths,” helping them to “build their bodies” and “teaching them target practice.” Al Adel also reminisced about al Suri’s time yelling at the new recruits with his peculiar voice. Years later, al Suri would serve the same role in Ahrar al Sham, training the organization’s new members. A video released by Ahrar al Sham this past July included a short snippet of al Suri instructing Ahrar’s recruits. And Ahrar al Sham’s own eulogy confirmed that al Suri “supervised” its “training camps.”
Al Adel’s eulogy contained an implicit criticism of the Islamic State, as he wondered who could possibly dare “to kill a sheikh among the sheikhs of the mujahideen,” meaning al Suri. Al Adel described al Suri’s killers as having “twisted” and “perverted” thoughts.
Another recently released work by al Adel deals with guerrilla warfare and revolutions. Al Adel has a reputation in jihadi circles as a sharp military strategist, and the release of this pamphlet was likely intended to expose his thinking to a wider audience.
Details of detention and release are murky
The new accounts say that Saif al Adel and the others were released fairly recently, in response to a prisoner exchange orchestrated by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While this is certainly possible, the story of the al Qaeda leaders’ time inside Iran has been especially murky. For instance, it was previously reported that Saif al Adel had been exchanged in late 2010 for another Iranian diplomat kidnapped by al Qaeda.
Al Adel’s ties to Iran date to the early 1990s. During the Clinton administration, federal prosecutors and other official US sources found that Iran and al Qaeda forged a deal during Osama bin Laden’s time in the Sudan. The 9/11 Commission also reported on the Iran-al Qaeda deal in its final report, which was published in 2004. In particular, Iran and Hezbollah agreed to show al Qaeda how to execute attacks such as the suicide bombings that targeted US Marines and American diplomats in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The 1998 US Embassy bombings were directly modeled after these attacks. Indeed, during the US trial of some of the terrorists responsible for the 1998 attacks, al Adel was identified as one of the al Qaeda operatives who received Iran’s and Hezbollah’s training.
At some point after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, al Adel relocated to Iran. His stay in the country became controversial after US and Saudi intelligence officials linked him to the May 2003 Riyadh bombings. Officials told the press that al Adel, while he was in Iran, had been in contact with the network that conducted the bombings.
In an apparent response to al Adel’s role in the Riyadh bombings, as well as growing American complaints about the al Qaeda leaders living in Iran, the Iranians placed al Adel and other senior al Qaeda figures under some form of arrest. However, the Iranians have been coy about their status. Every year since their detention the US State Department has reported: “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda (AQ) members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.”
Iran has also allowed other al Qaeda operatives to continue working on Iranian soil, even as it has kept some leaders of the organization in custody. Yasin al Suri has managed the al Qaeda facilitation hub in Iran for years, under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian regime. The Treasury and State Departments, which first exposed Yasin al Suri’s network inside Iran in July 2011, have repeatedly said that his operatives run a “core pipeline” for the organization.
Declassified documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound show that al Qaeda’s management team was keen to get al Adel back into the fold. One of the letters was written by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who then served as al Qaeda’s general manager. Rahman, who was subsequently killed in a US drone strike, once served as “as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.”
“I ask God to release our brothers from prison so they can come to help us carry the load,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden in mid-July 2010. “They are qualified.” Rahman specifically mentioned Saif al Adel, Abu al Khayr (Abu Khayr al Masri), and “Abu Muhammad al Zayyat,” according to the US government’s translation.
“However, if God facilitates their release they will really need to spend at least six months (and maybe a year) re-learning how things work, refreshing their knowledge, their activity and vitality,” Rahman cautioned to bin Laden. “During this period, they would be relatively nearby and we would gradually seek their advice in the matters, then maybe we could turn things over to them.” Rahman asked “God to release them and use them for the victory of Islam and Muslims and make them and us one of his righteous servants.”
Rahman’s letter confirms that al Adel and the others were not integrated into al Qaeda’s chain-of-command as of mid-2010. Still, it is possible that al Adel was released, or offered a greater degree of freedom, sometime in the months that followed.
After Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, it was widely reported that al Adel had been appointed as al Qaeda’s interim emir, a position he could not have held if he was truly in captivity. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal at the time “did not confirm or dispute [the] press reports pointing to al Adel’s” supposed role as interim emir.
Throughout the summer of 2011 there were persistent reports that al Adel was either no longer in detention, or at least allowed to travel.
In June 2011, the Associated Press reported: “Western intelligence officials believe al Adel is living in Iran but travels frequently to Pakistan and Afghanistan.” That same month, NPR cited US officials who believed al Adel and others had been “swapped” for an Iranian diplomat in 2010. “US intelligence picked up on the group in North Waziristan late last year — they reunited with al Qaeda and took up key leadership roles,” NPR reported.
In July 2011, The New York Times cited “intelligence officials” who said “they believe that Iran has agreed to better conditions for Qaeda operatives in Iran, including the organization’s top military strategist, Saif al Adel, who had been held under tight security.” That same month, the Associated Press followed up with another report, which read: “Since the release of the captive Iranian diplomat, al Adel has been given more freedom to travel to Pakistan — making at least one trip in the past year — and allowed to open more contacts with others in al Qaeda leadership, said Western intelligence officials who closely follow al Qaeda operations.”
The small set of publicly available documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound do not provide a definitive answer about the status of al Adel after mid-2010. Other al Qaeda leaders were released, either in exchange for the Iranian diplomat, or for other reasons.
For example, Rahman wrote to bin Laden in early April 2011: “Regarding the brothers in Iran. Our coordinator there sent me a brief message without much detail a few days ago. He says that some of the senior brothers have been released and wants to know how they should deal with them. I wrote back immediately asking for more details and I told him that the senior members must come here, and I’m waiting to hear back.”
The “coordinator” mentioned by Rahman is almost certainly Yasin al Suri, whom the US government identified as al Qaeda’s point man in Iran less than four months after Rahman’s letter was written.
Rahman went on to explain that “Sheikh Abu al Khayr’s sons” had relocated to Baluchistan, presumably from Iran. This is likely a reference to Abu Khayr al Masri’s family.
The story took another twist in early 2013, when Sulayman Abu Ghaith was detained and then questioned by the FBI. Abu Ghaith had once served as Osama bin Laden’s spokesman and was held inside Iran along with Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri, and Abu Khayr al Masri. As far as he knew, Abu Ghaith told the FBI, the trio was still detained inside Iran.
In mid-August, al Qaeda released an audio message from Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza. In it, Hamza asked Allah to release Adel and the two Masris, thereby indicating that he thought they were still detained. Hamza’s recording was dated, having been recorded months before its release. But it may have contained a hint that al Qaeda was about to reintroduce al Adel and the others.
Hamza emphasized the fact that he had been “educated” by them. It was a ringing endorsement from Osama’s heir.
An offer from Ayman al Zawahiri
In late August, a letter attributed to Ayman al Zawahiri was published on jihadist social media sites. Zawahiri addressed the letter, dated September 4, 2013, to Abu Ali al Anbari, a senior Islamic State official. The letter is also directed at Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. By that point, Baghdadi had gone rogue from al Qaeda’s command and declared an Islamic State stretching across parts of Iraq and Syria. Much of Zawahiri’s missive is devoted to a critique of Baghdadi and his Islamic State, with the al Qaeda leader emphasizing that he was Baghdadi’s emir until the “caliphate’s” chieftain became insubordinate.
But Zawahiri also offered fig leaf, a possible way to find common ground between the two sides. He suggested that Baghdadi’s men provide a list of people who could be included in al Qaeda’s negotiations with Iran.
Before addressing the simmering conflict between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, Zawahiri wanted Anbari (and Baghdadi) to pay attention to an “important matter.” The “brothers in Yemen,” meaning AQAP, had taken “an Iranian hostage.” Zawahiri suggested that the Islamic State send a “list with the names of imprisoned sisters,” including the widow of Abu Hamza al Muhajir (the deceased leader of the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, the Islamic State of Iraq), as well as the names of any mujahideen “sentenced to death in Iraq.” Zawahiri wanted the lists in case al Qaeda’s negotiations with Iran over the fate of its diplomat ever ensued.
It appears these are the same negotiations that, according to the new reports, sprung al Adel and his colleagues. Then again, there is evidence that al Adel was freed previously in exchange for another Iranian diplomat.
There is no question that Saif al Adel, Abu Mohammed al Masri and Abu Khayr al Masri are among al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. US intelligence officials have identified all three as members of al Qaeda’s management council. Saif al Adel’s elite status within jihadist circles is well-known. And US officials previously identified Abu Mohammed al Masri as al Qaeda’s “most experienced and capable operational planner not in US or allied custody,” according to The Washington Post.
But in addition to serving in al Qaeda’s upper echelon, the freed jihadists may serve another purpose. Jihadists on social media have circulated a rumor suggesting that al Qaeda plans on relaunching a new branch inside Iraq, in direct competition with the Islamic State. The al Qaeda leaders released from Iran are well-positioned to lead this effort. Saif al Adel worked with the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks and thereafter. Khalid al Aruri was one of Zarqawi’s closest companions.
The Islamic State has repeatedly argued that it represents Zarqawi’s legacy in Iraq. These men could argue the opposite, saying they, and al Qaeda, are Zarqawi’s true heirs.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.