Saif al-Adel, the former Egyptian military officer and onetime leading member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group (EIJ), is widely reported to have been chosen as the temporary head of al-Qaeda, until a new emir is chosen to replace Osama bin Laden, who was killed by a Navy SEAL team in Pakistan on May 2. However, this alleged appointment has not yet been announced officially by al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda Central, which is thought to be based along the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has made two public announcements since bin Laden’s death. The first was the confirmation of bin Laden’s death, and the second was the release of an audio recording which bin Laden had made a few days before his death, commenting on the ongoing Arab revolutions. These two releases prove that al-Qaeda was able to continue its media work despite bin Laden’s death, and in spite of their likely concern that the Americans may have gained important information from the al-Qaeda leader’s compound which could allow them to go after other figures in the group. But the lack of public statement about al-Adel’s appointment raises one inescapable question: Why wouldn’t al-Qaeda be able to go "official"’ with a statement and an audio tape announcing al-Adel’s appointment instead of remaining silent about such a crucial decision at such a crucial time.
While we may not be able to glean the true answer for some time, here are a couple of likely reasons why al-Qaeda may have gone silent on this issue. The lack of public statement doesn’t necessarily mean that the rumors aren’t true — Saif al-Adel may indeed have been chosen to head al-Qaeda, but only until the group settles on a more permanent leader. There are other more likely candidates than al-Adel – and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, as bin Laden’s longtime deputy, has always been the natural choice to head al-Qaeda after him. Moreover, given the need to maintain operational security during such a risky period, any forms of communication al-Qaeda is likely to use (human couriers being a standard preference) would take some time to circulate amongst al-Qaeda’s remaining leaders, gather their votes for a new emir, and share the choice with the other leaders.
In the absence of a verifiable statement from al-Qaeda to confirm or deny such an appointment it is important to gauge the response from prominent jihadis to the news, in order to see how movement insiders are reacting. While some seemed convinced that the reported appointment are probably true, others (both on jihadi forums and in private conversations) have been more skeptical, pointing to the fact that al-Qaeda should have been able to release a statement on this matter. But even the skeptics could not deny the stories, saying it may take days before a statement from al-Qaeda’s leadership is issued.
If Saif al-Adel has indeed become an interim head of al-Qaeda (the group has not issued a denial), this would be an interesting choice, for many reasons.
First of all, al-Adel is not known to have given public speeches, which makes it difficult to see how different he may sound as an organization and inspirational rather than operational leader compared to other speakers of al-Qaeda, such as Dr. Zawahiri, or the eloquent orator Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Second, Saif al-Adel is known to have always been a military man. He was a Colonel in the Egyptian army, and after joining al-Qaeda (through the EIJ) he was given the responsibility of heading the group’s military committee (apart from a brief time when has was given the post of head of the security committee around 1999 or 2000). So, for al-Qaeda’s remaining leaders to choose him now as temporary head (if this is indeed the case) would indicate a wish to give the post to someone with military and operational skills, rather than to a religious scholar or more vocal leader.
Third, the appointment of al-Adel would demonstrate that his value within al-Qaeda was not diminished despite his long reported absence from the battlefield — he was said to be under house arrest in Iran from roughly 2003 until sometime last year. The Iranians never confirmed his arrest, despite repeated allegations that he was being held in the country, along with dozens of other al-Qaeda members and various other jihadis. He was reportedly freed in 2010 and found his way back to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region (along with Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former head of al-Qaeda’s religious committee, and Sulaiman Abu Gaith, the former spokesman of al-Qaeda).
Fourth, al-Adel reportedly disagreed with bin Laden regarding the 9/11 attacks. To choose him as temporary head would indicate that he may have reconciled with bin Laden before the latter’s death. Otherwise it would be nearly impossible to have someone replacing bin Laden who had previously disagreed with him on such a public and important issue.
A final point about al-Adel deserves mention. There has been much confusion regarding his true identity, with the American government listing him on the "wanted" lists as Ibrahim Makkawi. Makkawi, according to various reports in the Arab press and letters supposed to have been sent by him, denies that he is the same person as Saif al-Adel. The photo on the FBI wanted list is indeed that of Saif al-Adel, but Makkawi is a different person, though both of them were former officers in the Egyptian Army (Makkawi was a Special Forces officer, something usually attributed to al-Adel). Additionally, a jihadist propaganda group linked to the EIJ, the Islamic Media Observatory, recently issued a statement denying that al-Adel is Makkawi. So if Saif al-Adel has indeed become the temporary head of al-Qaeda, we may soon get the opportunity to know more about the true identity of a man who has been so important to al-Qaeda yet such a mystery for so long.
Camille Tawil is a journalist for the Arabic-language Al-Hayat in London. He is the author of Brothers in Arms: The Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists.