Rare photo surfaces of top Al Qaeda leaders inside Iran

From Left to right: Al Qaeda leaders Saif al Adel, Abu Muhammad al Masri, and Abu Abu al Khayr al Masri in Tehran, Iran, circa 2015. Photograph from Anonymous@Sw0rdOfAnon.

A recently surfaced photograph of three of Al Qaeda’s top leaders, including Saif al Adel – the man many believe to be the successor to emir Ayman al Zawahiri – shows that they were present in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Numerous U.S. government designations have previously outlined the presence of senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, but this photo offered rare visual proof.

The photo was originally published by @Sw0rdOfAnon (Anonymous) on Twitter. Two U.S. intelligence officials independently confirmed to FDD’s Long War Journal the authenticity of the photograph, as well as the identities of the three men. The intelligence officials said the photograph was taken in Tehran before 2015.

The photograph shows, from left to right, Saif al Adel, Abu Muhammad al Masri, and Abu Abu al Khayr al Masri. The photograph casts significant doubt on the assertions that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp and Ministry of Intelligence kept these and other Al Qaeda leaders under strict house arrest.

Al Adel, originally a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a jihadist group that formally merged with Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, has long been a top leader in Al Qaeda. Al Adel is known to have sheltered in Iran along with other key terrorist leaders. Al Adel has served as Al Qaeda’s overall military commander and a member of its central decision making council. He is now believed to be inside Afghanistan.

Al Adel’s ties to Iran and its chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, date to the early 1990s. During the U.S. embassy bombings trial in early 2001, an Al Qaeda defector named Jamal al-Fadl Identified al Adel as one of the Al Qaeda members who received Iran’s and Hezbollah’s explosives training. The 9/11 Commission later found that Al Qaeda used this training to develop the “tactical expertise” necessary to conduct the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, which were modeled after Hezbollah’s attacks on American and Western forces in Lebanon in the early 1980s. [For more information on Saif al Adel, see FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran]

Abu Muhammad al Masri, who was also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was also an original member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and was complicit in the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings. He served as a key Al Qaeda leader and was a member of its central council. He was in the line of succession to lead Al Qaeda before he was gunned down in Tehran on Aug. 7, 2020, the 22 year anniversary of the Africa embassy bombings. [For more information Abu Muhammad al Masri, see FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Analysis: 2 wanted al Qaeda leaders operate in Iran and Analysis: Al Qaeda’s deputy emir killed in Iran]

Abu Khayr al Masri, whose real name was Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al Rahman, also was a original member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad before rising to the top ranks of Al Qaeda. U.S. intelligence identified Abu Khayr as the chairman of Al Qaeda’s management council, according to the Washington Post. Abu Khayr also previously served as Al Qaeda’s “chief of foreign relations” and in that capacity he was a “liaison to the Taliban” in Afghanistan.

Abu Khayr, along with a number of senior Al Qaeda leaders, relocated to Syria in 2016 to reorganize Al Qaeda’s network in the country and unite sparring jihadist factions. At the time, Al Qaeda identified Ab Khayr as Zawahiri’s “general deputy.” Abu Khayr’s time in Syria was short lived, as he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Idlib on Feb. 26, 2017. [For more information Abu Khayr al Masri, see FDD’s Long War Journal report, Zawahiri’s deputy sought to ‘unify’ Syrian rebels.]

The presence of top Al Qaeda leaders inside Iran has been documented by the U.S government in numerous designations over the years. Other senior leaders known to have been operating inside Iran include ‘Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi, Yasin al Suri, Sa’ad bin Laden (now deceased), and Mustafa Hamid. [For a list of Al Qaeda leaders, operatives and facilitators operating in Iran, see FDD’s Long War Journal report, U.S. identifies additional al Qaeda leaders in Iran.]

In addition to keeping tabs on senior Al Qaeda figures inside Iran, the U.S. Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly exposed Iran’s “secret deal” with the Sunni jihadists. Under an agreement with the Iranian regime, Al Qaeda has maintained its “core facilitation pipeline” inside Iran. The Iranians have allowed this facilitation network to operate even though Iran and Al Qaeda are on opposite sides of the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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