On Jihadica Sayf al-Adl and al-Qaidas Historical Leadership by Vahid Brown
The new boy will no doubt want to make a splash.
Another reason for Zawahiri to be pissed, I'm beginning to think of him as a Takfiri version of Gordon Brown.In light of the widely reported news that Sayf al-Adl (also spelled Saif al-Adel) has taken the reins of operational leadership within al-Qaida in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be useful to Jihadicas readers to provide a bit of context about this man and about the significance, if any, of these reports (see, e.g., Musharbash and Bergen), all of which rely on the testimony of Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
First of all, it would be more correct to say that Sayf al-Adl remains the operational leader of al-Qaida rather than that he has lately assumed this rank. (Nor is this the first time that Benotman has called attention in the press to Sayfs operational re-emergence in al-Qaida. He discussed Sayfs release from Iran and return to headquarters, as it were, with Der Speigel last October) Several al-Qaida insiders have reported since 2009 that Sayf took the top slot in al-Qaidas military committee after the 2001 death of Abu Hafs al-Masri (Muhammad Atef). These sources also evidence long standing tensions within the organization about Zawahiri being AQs second-in-command, next in line to lead should Bin Laden exit the scene.
This much can be gleaned from Abu Jandal (Nasser al-Bahri), the Yemeni former bodyguard of Bin Laden, who has much to say on both points in his 2010 memoir. Abu Jandal broke with al-Qaida after 9/11, but according to him up to that point the chain of command in operational terms was clearly Bin Laden, Abu Hafs, Sayf, and then Abu Muhammad al-Masri (Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah). With Abu Hafs dead, Sayf took the operational lead as head of the military committee. As for the doubts about Zawahiri, at the end of his book Abu Jandal asks himself what would happen if Bin Laden died, and answers that while Zawahiri would theoretically replace him, to me, Zawahiri does not possess the requisite qualities to lead the organization. He goes on to say (translating from the French here):
Bin Laden is a born leader. He commanded al-Qaida with a certain transparency, rendering him universally acceptable; he is open to dialogue; and he has historical legitimacy. Zawahiri, though, conducts his affairs in secret. There are numerous members of al-Qaida that would not accept Zawahiri taking over. His behavior and that of the Egyptians have generated a great deal of reserve, sometimes very harsh criticism. All of this has left its mark. His statements, as we have seen, are sometimes dismissed. I doubt he has sufficient authority for such a position, even with his well-known authoritarianism and his penchant for centralizing power in himself (p. 281).
Much more revealing is Abdullah Muhammad Fazuls two-volume autobiography, released online in early 2009. Fazul joined al-Qaida as a teenager in 1991, and his trainer at al-Faruq Camp then located at the Haqqani compound at Zhawara, in southeastern Afghanistan was none other than Sayf al-Adl. Fazul is no fan of Zawahiri, of whom he sometimes writes dismissively, as a Johnny-come-lately hanger-on. He repeatedly emphasizes that he is loyal to what he calls mother al-Qaida, and says that the historical leadership of this old-school al-Qaida did not change when Zawahiri decided in 2000 to merge up his all-but-defunct Jihad al-Islami organization with Bin Ladens. Here are two representative excerpts, one from 2007, the other from late 2008 or early 2009, in both of which Sayf is clearly identified as al-Qaidas operational boss:
After we learned of the death of Dadullah there was a reorganization of the leadership of the old guard of al-Qaida. It was announced today [late May, 2007] that Shaykh Said (Abu Yazid), who was in charge of al-Qaidas financial affairs since its founding and was the first leader of the former Finance Committee, has been made the new Amir of al-Qaidas branch in Afghanistan. This is of a new strategy to confuse the Americans and is the best way to turn the people to the new leaders This is also to show the Americans and Westerners waging their war on us that they fail to understand our leaders and that the central leadership is fine. So the general Amir Usama bin Ladin is fine and in good health, and the financial leadership is fine and under the command of Shaykh Said. As for the sharia leadership, all of them are in Iran and living safely under the leadership of the esteemed shaykh Abu Hafs al-Muritani. As for the military and security leadership, it is no secret to anyone that the strikes in Afghanistan have proven the preparedness of these leaders. All of them are fine, and brother Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Shaykh Sayf al-Adl are both well and in Iran and continue the struggle in consultation with their brothers the field commanders in Afghanistan, such as brother Khalid al-Habib and Abu Islam al-Masri known as Shuayb. We were gladdened by the announcement of Shaykh Saids new amir position, as it came after the capture of our beloved brother Shaykh Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, may God break his bonds. So long as the heads of the committees that comprise the mother al-Qaida remain fine, then inshaallah all things will be fine. (From vol. 2, p. 310)
The following excerpt is from a lengthy discussion of al-Qaidas quest for nuclear weapons (vol. 2, p. 499):
I say that the mystery of the word al-Qaida is one that few have understood. There is the mother al-Qaida, there are the collaborators, and there are the Afghan Arabs who worked together during the Afghan jihad, and now all are characterized as al-Qaida. In the same way, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri is referred to as al-Qaida even before the unification and integration. He is called the number two man in the organization, but we dont have firsts and seconds in Islam, all are equal before God, and in any case I have never once taken orders from Zawahiri. Although he became the deputy of the Shaykh [UBL] after unification, and followed the same management style, the number two man in the mother al-Qaida organization is brother Sayf al-Adl, after the killing of Shaykh Abu Hafs the Commander (God have mercy on him), and we do not take orders from anyone but our historical leadership.
(For more on Fazul and the al-Qaida succession question, see Nelly Lahouds recent article here.)
That Sayf has been hands-on with al-Qaida field operations since 2001 is well-known; some of the evidence was rehearsed in a backgrounder put out by longwarjournal today. (See also my profile of Sayf as of 2007, here at p. 119.) Sayf was responsible for forging al-Qaidas ties with Zarqawi, as we know from Sayfs own memoir on this published by Fuad Hussayn in 2005. More recently, US military intelligence claimed to have intercepted letters in 2008 between al-Qaida leaders including Sayf, who is referred to as a second-in-command in this context and AQI, which show al-Qaida Central struggling to clean up Zarqawis mess in Iraq. Less well known is Sayfs role in the killing of Daniel Pearl. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad told FBI interrogators in 2007 that it was Sayf who tipped him off about Daniel Pearls kidnapping and directed him to make an al-Qaida propaganda coup out of it.
During all this time, then, Sayf and Abu Muhammad al-Masri retained operational leadership of al-Qaida from their hideouts in Iran, but more recently Sayf and other members of the historical leadership have gone public again. Readers of Jihadica will know this already; I wrote about Sayfs first batch of new letters here and Will has begun to shed light on the newest batch of letters here. What changed?
The story goes something like this. In late 2008, Iranian diplomat Heshmat Attarzadeh was kidnapped in Peshawar, and then sold down the river to Pakistani Taliban custody in South Waziristan. Iran, in pursuit of his release, sought the good offices of the Haqqani network leadership, who engineered a swap in 2009: Attarzadeh for Sayf and a number of other house arrested al-Qaida figures, including Abu Hafs al-Muritani, Sulayman Abu al-Ghayth, and several members of Bin Ladens family. The story first broke in the Afghan press at the beginning of April, 2010, in a story in Pastho on Weesa.net (no longer available online). Abul-Walid al-Masri then posted a translation of the story to a forum, and at the end of the month Syed Saleem Shahzad came through with one of his characteristically colorful stories about the whole affair. Some of the details remain slightly fishy why, for example, would Iran trade such potentially valuable bargaining chips for a minor diplomat? but whatever the case it was only after this that all of the above-named folks began releasing statements via Abul-Walids blog. That al-Qaidas operational commander, top religious cleric and former spokesman all released new statements on the website of one of al-Qaidas most virulent critics, and not through official al-Qaida channels, does indicate a certain amount of distance between these men and Zawahiri, commander-in-chief of al-Qaida TV.
This is already a too-long blog post, so Ill leave it at that and try to return this weekend with some comments on Sayfs strategic outlook and what it might mean for al-Qaida if he, and not Zawahiri, were to become the face of global jihad.
The new boy will no doubt want to make a splash.