Iran-based trainer of 9/11 hijackers Sayf al-‘Adl believed to be new al-Qaeda chief

Though successor to Ayman al-Zawahri not officially announced by terror group, most UN member states say commander is its ‘uncontested leader’

Saif al-Adel, Al-Qaeda's likely new leader. (Combatting Terrorism Center, USMA via Wikipedia)
Saif al-Adel, Al-Qaeda's likely new leader. (Combatting Terrorism Center, USMA via Wikipedia)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — UN experts say the predominant view among member nations is that the leadership of al-Qaeda has passed to Sayf al-‘Adl, who was responsible for Osama bin Laden’s security and trained some of the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attack on the US.

The panel of experts said in a report to the UN Security Council circulated Monday that no announcement has been made of Sayf al-‘Adl replacing Ayman al-Zawahri, who was killed by a US drone strike in Kabul last August.

“But in discussions in November and December many UN member states took the view that Sayf al-‘Adl is already operating as the de facto and uncontested leader of the group,” the report said.

Assessments vary as to why al-‘Adl’s leadership hasn’t been declared, it said.

Some countries feel that al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul embarrassed the country’s Taliban rulers who are seeking legitimacy “and that al-Qaeda chose not to exacerbate this by acknowledging the death,” the experts said.

“However, most judged a key factor to be the continued presence of Sayf al-‘Adl in the Islamic Republic of Iran (which) raised difficult theological and operational questions for al-Qaeda,” they said.

In this 1998 file photo made available March 19, 2004, Ayman al-Zawahri, left, listens during a news conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan. (Mazhar Ali Khan/AP)

While noting that one country rejected claims that any al-Qaeda affiliate is in Iran, the panel said that the location of Sayf al-‘Adl’a “raises questions that have a bearing on al-Qaeda’s ambitions to assert leadership of a global movement in the face of challenges” from the Islamic State extremist group.

Sayf al-‘Adl has been listed on the UN sanctions blacklist as Egyptian-born Mohammed Salahaldin Abd El Halim Zidan since January 2001, the panel said. He is described in the UN listing as taking over as military commander of al-Qaeda following the death of Mohammed Atef — one of bin Laden’s top aides — in a US attack in November 2001.

In addition to being bin Laden’s security chief, the UN says, Sayf al-‘Adl taught militants to use explosives and trained some of the hijackers involved in the attack in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. It says he also trained Somali fighters who killed 18 US servicemen in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Sayf al-‘Adl is wanted by US authorities in connection with the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.

The United States Embassy and other damaged buildings in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, are shown on the day after a terrorist bombing, Aug. 8, 1998. (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin, File)

According to the report, the threat from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State extremist group, and their affiliates “remains high in conflict zones and neighboring countries,” with Africa emerging in recent years “as the continent where the harm done by terrorism is developing most rapidly and extensively.”

The panel said the Islamic State’s leadership has also become a question following the group’s Nov. 30 announcement that Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had died in a battle the previous month, the group’s second leader to be killed in 2022.

“The new leader was announced as Abu al-Husain al-Husaini al-Qurashi, and his true identity is not yet known,” the experts said.

Member states noted numerous pledges of allegiance to Abu al-Husain by Islamic State “affiliates far and wide without specific knowledge of his identity or qualities as a leader,” they said.

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