Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl

Abstract: With the confirmed deaths of Hamza bin Ladin and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, as well as the reported (but as yet unconfirmed) demise of al-Qaida’s second emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the likely next in line to inherit the leadership is an Egyptian who goes by the nom de guerre Saif al-Adl. Like the late Abu Muhammad, Saif lives in Iran and is apparently restricted from leaving the country. Little is known about his current movements or activities. Nevertheless, Saif’s revered status within the movement, as well as his deep experience as a military, intelligence, and security leader and a terrorist planner, make him a potentially dangerous emir.

By the time he died in May 2011, Usama bin Ladin had already identified his successor. Under the terms of his organization’s 2001 merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the former leader of EIJ Ayman al-Zawahiri was to be the next emir of al-Qaida. But before al-Zawahiri could formally take office, he needed pledges of allegiance (bayat) from the members of its governing council. Al-Zawahiri did not collect those pledges himself; to finish the job, the organization needed someone whose credentials and loyalty were unimpeachable. It turned to a man who had been there since the very beginning, and who had been a leading figure almost as long: the Egyptian former commando named Saif al-Adl.1

Since 2002 or 2003, Saif had been based in Iran. While there, his status shifted periodically. Sometimes he was detained in prison, sometimes under varying forms of house arrest.2 Toward the end of 2010, he had been allowed to travel back to Waziristan in northern Pakistan, where al-Qaida then had its hub.3 In May 2011, Saif enjoyed enough liberty to act as interim leader of al-Qaida, the organization to which he had given the past 22 years of his life.4

Many in al-Qaida probably wished his appointment could be made permanent; for while Saif and al-Zawahiri were both Egyptians, al-Qaida’s membership saw them in very different lights. As this article will show, Saif was a loyal member, a military and intelligence leader who had helped transform al-Qaida from a loose band of former anti-Soviet militiamen into the world’s most deadly terrorist organization. Al-Zawahiri, by contrast, was an interloper, the failed leader of a group that, by the time it merged with al-Qaida, had only around 10 members left.5 At the time, Saif himself had opposed the merger. But he knew bin Ladin’s wishes as to the succession, and after bin Ladin’s death, he carried them out with the same efficiency and single-mindedness that characterized everything he did. Within six weeks, he had secured pledges of baya from all but one of the members of al-Qaida’s governing Shura council.6 (Intriguingly, the sole holdout was Saif’s former private secretary Harun Fazul—then the leader of al-Qaida in East Africa—who had often derided al-Zawahiri in the past.7 Harun was killed around the same time al-Zawahiri became emir, and some reports suggested that he was lured to his death by al-Qaida’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab—possibly in retaliation for his failure to give baya to the new leader.8) His job done, Saif al-Adl again faded into the background. Indeed, by the fall of 2011, Saif had apparently returned to captivity in Iran.9

Saif’s relatively brief moment in the spotlight reveals much about his character. Even after bin Ladin’s death—and on a subject on which he vehemently disagreed with the al-Qaida leader when he was alive—Saif showed unswerving loyalty to bin Ladin. When he acts, he does so with ruthless efficiency. Above all, he is a pragmatist—a man who would have known that despite the hateful necessity of living under a Shia government anathema to Sunni al-Qa`ida, his best chance of survival, and therefore of continued effectiveness in the jihad, lay in a return to Iran.

With the death in Tehran of the senior al-Qaida commander Abu Muhammad al-Masri10 and the possible death in Pakistan last fall of the group’s overall emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri,11 al-Qaida’s bench of leaders whose involvement goes back to its founding is looking somewhat threadbare. But one big name remains. When U.S. forces took Kandahar in late 2001, they captured thousands of documents detailing the history, structure, and membership of al-Qaida, including a list of the organization’s 170 charter members. On that list, Usama bin Ladin is number one. Saif al-Adl is number eight.12

As this profile will show, Saif disagreed with bin Ladin on more than one occasion, and was usually unafraid to let his feelings be known. Nevertheless, Saif’s loyalty to his master was unswerving. Unlike many of the other high-ranking Egyptians in the organization—including al-Zawahiri—Saif never owed allegiance to any other group. For years, as al-Qaida moved from Afghanistan to East Africa and back, he was a watchman at bin Ladin’s side, constantly looking out for trouble, and frequently finding it.13 He was a trusted emissary to the rogue states and armed groups al-Qaida courted, as well as to the places where it sought to expand its operations, from Yemen to Somalia to Iran. Bin Ladin, who for much of his adult life was pursued by assassins of many lands and allegiances, trusted Saif more than almost anyone else. By the eve of September 11, 2001, Saif was effectively fourth in command, behind only bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri, and the formidable military chieftain Abu Hafs al-Masri. Later, bin Ladin seems to have revised the order of precedence, inserting Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Abu al-Khair al-Masri (henceforth in this article referred to as Abu Khair, one of al-Zawahiri’s EIJ shura council members) ahead of Saif.14 But either way, the only two on the list left alive are al-Zawahiri and Saif; and al-Zawahiri may already have died.

Saif is one of the most experienced professional soldiers in the worldwide jihadi movement, and his body bears the scars of battle: a wound under his right eye from a bursting illumination shell; a scar on his right hand; an arm injury from his time fighting the United States and its allies in Somalia.15 But he is no simple-minded thug. On the contrary, he is said to be “highly educated [with] good English.”16 Former colleagues describe him as a “shrewd diplomat” with a poker face.17 Yet his temper, too, has become notorious. Possessed of a “caustic tongue,” he is apt to threaten violence against anyone who displeases him, and is known to meet disloyalty with swift and ruthless force.18 Toward underlings he can be contemptuous, even brutal, in the heat of the moment.19 But he has also been known as a font of avuncular advice.20 In happier times, he showed a talent for soccer and a penchant for practical jokes.21

Saif’s crimes, however, are deadly serious. The United States has placed a $5 million bounty on his head (later increased to $10 million) for his role in the murder of 224 people in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in the East Africa embassy bombings of August 1998.22 In an organization infamous for its pitiless wholesale destruction of human lives, Saif stands out for his lack of remorse, even at times when other high-ranking terrorists have expressed doubt about the rightness of their deeds.23 One operative said that Saif was difficult to work with because he does not trust anyone.24

Little is known for certain about him. Like the callow youth Pasha in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, who uses the chaos of revolution to reimagine himself as the cruel Soviet commissar Strelnikov, Saif al-Adl has taken extraordinary steps to obfuscate the particulars of his apparently rather ordinary life before al-Qaida. Like Strelnikov—which translates loosely as “The Gunman”—Saif al-`Adl is not his real name but a melodramatic nom de guerre: “Sword of Justice.” As seen in the next section, there is evidence that Saif faked his own death while still in his 20s, and he may have stolen the identity of an entirely different man.

What follows is an attempt to trace his most likely path and, in so doing, cast new light on the origins of al-Qaida and its possible future (or even present) emir. As the remainder of this article will show, Saif’s life story reads like a jihadi picaresque. Having faked his own death at a young age, for years he successfully obfuscated the details of his early life, convincing even Western intelligence agencies that he was a completely different man. In the 1980s, he joined the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and became a charter member of al-Qaida. He went on to play a central role in audacious attacks from the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia to the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the suicide attack on the destroyer the USS Cole. He mentored the Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, later the founder of the organization that became the Islamic State. After 9/11, Saif went into hiding in Iran and, despite capture and long periods of imprisonment by the Iranian authorities, continues to play a leading role in al-Qa`ida today.

Mistaken Identity
For years, some analysts believed that Saif al-`Adl was an Egyptian former special forces colonel named Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi; indeed, the FBI still lists that name as one of Saif’s aliases.25 The facts seemed to fit this hypothesis. Like Saif, Makkawi hails from Egypt’s Nile Delta. Both men served in their country’s armed forces, both went on to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and both espoused salafi-jihadi views. But they are not the same person.

On February 29, 2012, Colonel Mohammed Makkawi set foot on Egyptian soil for the first time in a quarter century.26 For most, if not all, of that time, in light of the suspicions of terrorism swirling around him, Makkawi had been persona non grata in his native country. But the fall of Mubarak and the impending rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a worldwide Islamist movement founded in Egypt, seemed to open the door for the return of men like Makkawi, whom the Mubarak regime had previously proscribed for their extreme religious opinions. Shortly after his arrival at Cairo International Airport, however, Egyptian security forces pounced. State media reported that the authorities had, at last, apprehended the infamous al-Qaida terrorist Saif al-Adl.27

Within hours, however, they had retracted the story. Indeed, anyone who has met both men, or even compared their pictures, would know this instantly. While Makkawi is stocky and dark-skinned, the known images of Saif show him to be slim and of light complexion. There is, moreover, an age difference between the two men of around a decade, meaning that Makkawi and Saif come from two different generations of jihadis.

Makkawi was born in the early 1950s. He served in the Egyptian military during the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel, became a member of a specialist anti-terrorism unit within the Egyptian armed forces, and eventually rose to the rank of colonel. In 1987, Makkawi was briefly detained by the Egyptian regime, which suspected him of involvement in a plot to assassinate a government minister and a newspaper editor initiated by an underground group calling itself (in Arabic) “Salvation from Hell.” Upon his release, disgusted at his treatment by the Egyptian government, Makkawi departed for Afghanistan to fight the Russians as one of thousands of “Arab Afghans” who began pouring into the country following the Soviet invasion in late 1979. Leaving his old life behind, Makkawi adopted a nom de guerre—not Saif al-`Adl but Abu al-Munther.

As a seasoned military officer, however, Makkawi had little respect for the ragtag freshman fighters around him, regarding them as reckless, incompetent, a “generation of amateurs” fighting the “war of the goats,” hot not for victory but for slaughter. Noman Benotman, a former senior figure in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who has met both Makkawi and Saif, puts it succinctly: “Makkawi hates al-Qaeda.”28 Many of the organization’s operatives reciprocate his dislike, describing Makkawi as uppity, arrogant, “short fused,” “unpredictable,” even “dangerously unbalanced.”29 (Few in al-Qaida would dare say such things about the legendary Saif al-Adl.) After the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, Makkawi took refuge in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he attempted to lead a normal life, despite having attracted both the enmity of al-Qaida and the suspicion of domestic and foreign intelligence. Saif al-Adl, by contrast, drawn to a life of permanent jihad, went on looking for Goliaths to slay.

Of the real Saif al-`Adl, only three images are known to exist. They show a slender-faced man with hooded almond eyes and a proud, unblinking stare—his gaze sparkling, as his future father-in-law was to write, with intelligence and cunning.30 His real name is Mohammed Salahuddin Zeidan.31 He was born in Shibin al-Kawm, a town about 40 miles northwest of downtown Cairo, in the early 1960s. At that time, Egyptian premier Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the most respected leaders in the Arab world, pressing ahead with his pan-Arab socialist agenda of nationalizing Western-dominated industries, backing major construction projects from the Helwan Steelworks in the north to the Aswan Dam in the south, and, for a brief time, pursuing political and economic union with Syria and North Yemen. But Nasser’s utopian schemes were doomed to come crashing down in the humiliation of the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel annihilated the bulk of Nasser’s air force before Egypt could fire a shot. All over the country, terrorist cells began gaining strength, including one that had formed around a teenaged jihadi and future medical student, Ayman al-Zawahiri.32 Soon, a number of these cells, including the one led by al-Zawahiri, would coalesce to form a new organization called Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).

But Saif al-Adl would not join EIJ. The sheikh of the Farjul Islam mosque, where the young Mohammed Zeidan attended prayers and lectures, recalls a quiet, studious, rather introverted young man.33 According to his older brother Hassan, Saif enjoyed good relations with all his neighbors, including even Coptic Christians, a minority who periodically became a favorite target of hardline Islamists.34 After graduating from high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business from a local university, then enlisted with the Egyptian army reserve, where he specialized in parachuting and (judging by the expertise he was to show later in al-Qaida’s training camps) learned a fair amount about explosives and intelligence.35

In the roiling political climate of Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to avoid at least some exposure to hardline propaganda—especially on campus and in the armed forces, two institutions heavily infiltrated by Islamists.36 During Saif’s formative years, moreover, events were taking place that inflamed outrage across the Arab world. He was in his teens when Nasser’s successor, President Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David accords with Israel, and not much older when Sadat was assassinated by an offshoot of EIJ. And yet, while still in his home country, Saif had no known connections with any extremist groups. As an Egyptian intelligence operative was to put it, he “was never part of any jihad organization … until he moved to Afghanistan and found his calling.”37

Saif had always told his family that he intended to leave Egypt once his military service was over. Like many young Egyptians of his generation, faced with dim economic prospects at home, he planned to start a new life across the Red Sea in the booming Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1987, his brother drove him to Cairo airport to board a flight to Mecca, where Saif intended to complete a minor pilgrimage (i.e., one of lesser importance than the full Hajj) before looking for work. It would be the last time any member of his family would see him. A year later, a stranger arrived on his brother’s doorstep, carrying a jacket that Hassan recognized as having belonged to Saif. The stranger told Hassan that Saif had indeed found work in Saudi Arabia, as a salesman, but had been killed in a car crash. His distraught family petitioned the Saudi authorities to learn more details of how Saif had died, but to no avail. Consumed by grief, his mother’s health declined, and she suffered a stroke from which she eventually died. In the absence of any contact, the Family Court of Shibin al-Kawm declared Saif legally dead.38

In a way, it was true. The person Mohammed Salahuddin Zeidan had been—the studious youth, the loyal soldier, the decent citizen in a land increasingly gripped by violence—had indeed passed away. But Saif al-`Adl was very much alive.

Saif al-`Adl (FBI)

Joining the Jihad
Saif al-`Adl’s first encounter with bin Ladin may have taken place during one of the sheikh’s frequent recruiting trips back to Saudi Arabia; but it is equally possible that Saif never intended to stay in Saudi Arabia at all, for it was widely known across the Arab world that the Kingdom was offering subsidized flights to Afghanistan for young men willing to participate in the jihad against the Soviets. Either way, Saif was soon ensconced in the Afghan jihad, making effective use of his military background. Desperate to inflict on the Soviet Union a defeat comparable to that suffered by the United States in Vietnam a decade before, America had recently begun supplying the mujahideen with hundreds of shoulder-mounted FIM-92 Stinger missiles, and one of Saif’s first jobs in Afghanistan was to instruct his fellow fighters in the use of these weapons to bring down Russian Hind helicopter gunships.39 Years later, and thousands of miles away, he would train other fighters to use widely available conventional weapons against American Black Hawks in Mogadishu, Somalia, but that was in a future barely conceivable through the fevered late-Cold War fog of the mid-1980s.

In 1988, facing a brutal war of attrition with no end in sight, the Soviets signed peace accords and began to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the minds of the Arab mujahideen turned to what they would do after the war was over. Some would return home to their families, but for others, this was unthinkable. Almost all the Egyptians fell into this category; they could not go home, even if they wanted to, because they would be arrested on sight by the Mubarak regime. For these men, jihad became not a single project but a way of life. They poured disdain on those who, in their eyes, came to the war merely for adventure or recreation—“tourism jihad,” as they scornfully called it.40

By the late summer of 1988, this hard core of jihadis had coalesced to form a new grouping called al-Qa`ida al-Askaria—the Military Base. They described themselves as “an organized Islamic faction” dedicated to “lift[ing] the word of God, to make His religion victorious.”41 Tourist jihadis would not be welcome in this new organization; only those whose presence in the theater of war was permanent would be eligible for membership.42

Al-Qa`ida’s first major battle would not go well. After the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Ladin and his fellow Arab commanders, lifted high on a wave of inflated morale, led the mujahideen in a massed assault on the city of Jalalabad.43 There, they took on the forces of the Marxist Najibullah regime, still backed by Russian military planning and scud missiles. Saif was among those who fought, and he was already carefully shunning the limelight; unlike many of his more publicity-hungry comrades, he refused to let himself be photographed by journalists on the scene.44 The Battle of Jalalabad was an unmitigated disaster for the mujahideen. Three thousand fighters died—fully one-fifth of the force that had attacked the city. Following this ignominious episode, bin Ladin slunk off back home to Saudi Arabia, where he would remain for almost two years.

While bin Ladin licked his wounds in his home city of Jeddah, Saif progressed up the hierarchy. His intelligence, military background, and authoritative bearing impressed his superiors, and he quickly rose to be emir of the Faruq training camp in Afghanistan.45 At Faruq and its sister facilities—where the extensive course offerings included instruction in assassination and kidnapping—Saif supervised training in explosives, intelligence gathering, and counterintelligence.46

Saif’s students in this period included Ramzi Yousef, who would go on to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993;47 Harun Fazul, later a leader of the cell that would kill scores of people at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam;48 and L’Houssaine Kertchou, who would turn state’s witness in the embassy bombings trial.49 With his sharp military mind, Saif helped transform the quality of training in the camps50 and establish standard operating procedures on everything from battle tactics to archiving.51 By 1991, he had risen into al-Qa`ida’s “second tier” leadership, a group subordinate only to bin Ladin and his three closest associates.52 Soon, he would join them at the very top.

On graduation day in August 1990, Saif and his students planned to test their skills with explosives by staging a mock ambush.53 They singled out a truck pulling into the Khaldan camp and stealthily surrounded it, exploding a bomb to bring a tree down in front of the vehicle and firing their weapons as they attacked. Two Afghans who had been riding on the flatbed took shelter underneath the chassis. But the front passenger, a distinguished-looking Egyptian in his mid-40s, stepped calmly out of the vehicle and surveyed the scene. The fighters recognized him at once as Mustafa Hamid, a legendary figure among the Arab Afghans also known by his kunya, Abu Walid al-Masri. Hamid had been one of the first Arabs to travel to Afghanistan, and he had become their principal ideologue and chronicler. Saif al-`Adl approached Hamid, laughing heartily at the merry hell he and his men had succeeded in raising and gloating over the discomfiture of the two Afghans, who emerged from under the vehicle shaken and dripping with mud. Hamid, seeing Saif for the first time, noted his “narrow Asian eyes showing intelligence and cunning” and his “skinny strong body … full of energy.” Over tea, Hamid and Saif discussed the news from Saudi Arabia, where U.S. forces had just arrived to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. It was the start of an enduring friendship. A year and a half later, Saif would become Hamid’s son-in-law when he married his then 15-year-old daughter, Asma. With that, his place at the heart of the jihadi movement was assured.

Africa
“The war in Afghanistan is winding down,” Saif told a Palestinian jihadi around the end of 1992. “We are going to move the jihad to other parts of the world.”54 In fact, the war in Afghanistan was not coming to an end but morphing from a struggle against communist rule into a civil war between rival armed factions. There was little upside for al-Qaida in battling fellow mujahideen. Moreover, the crushing defeat at Jalalabad, and bin Ladin’s subsequent retreat to Saudi Arabia, had severely damaged al-Qaida’s morale and the effectiveness of its recruitment efforts.55 In any event, most observers had already given up hope that Afghanistan could emerge from the chaos into which it was quickly descending as anything resembling al-Qaida’s idea of the ideal Islamic state.56 But there was another regime in the world that did approach that standard: the Sudanese National Islamic Front (NIF). Almost since the moment it came to power in a 1989 coup d’état, the NIF had been trying to persuade bin Ladin to move his organization to Sudan.57 Bin Ladin sent his own emissaries to Sudan. They told him al-Qaida and the NIF shared common goals. “What you are trying to do,” these envoys assured bin Ladin, “it is Sudan!”58

During the winter of 1991-1992, bin Ladin took the Sudanese up on their offer. Saif helped him pack up al-Qaida’s operations and move them to Khartoum. There, Saif reestablished the training camps and continued to instruct recruits in the use of explosives.59 Saif’s own career in al-Qaida continued to blossom; even while he was still in Afghanistan, colleagues were describing him as “an important al-Qaeda leader.”60 Before long, he had become a member of the organization’s central military committee.61

Soon, Saif would be honing his deadly skills in an unlikely place: a Hezbollah training camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The sectarian divide between Sunni al-Qaida and Shia Hezbollah was a very real one for both sides; but it was one that al-Qaida’s leadership was willing to overlook in the name of battling their common enemy, the United States of America. At least since the start of the Gulf War, bin Ladin had been spoiling for a fight with the “Great Satan.” Behind closed doors, he had even begun to suggest that al-Qaida should make common cause not only with a non-state Shi`agroup like Hezbollah but even with their political masters in the government of Iran itself.62 The Islamic Republic shared this pragmatic calculus; its enemy’s enemy could be considered, at least for the time being, its friend.63

In Khartoum, bin Ladin sat down with a high representative of the Iranian regime who had access to the topmost branches of power in Tehran.64 The Saudi made his demand clear: He wanted al-Qaida operatives trained to use explosives to destroy buildings, something Hezbollah had done repeatedly since its founding in 1982. Iran agreed that al-Qaida personnel would go to Lebanon to be trained by Imad Mugniyah, one of Hezbollah’s most dangerous operatives, responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist prior to 9/11. As one of al-Qaida’s top military experts, Saif al-Adl was a natural candidate for this training; and indeed, the lessons from Mugniyah provided a terrible vision of things to come. Not long after his return from Lebanon, Saif would begin putting together the cell that would go on to kill hundreds at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, using methods of explosive demolition bearing striking similarities to those of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, despite being a Shia group associated with the most hardline Shia government in the world, had shown itself able to work with Sunni militants like those of Hamas and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But al-Qaida was different. While commanders like bin Ladin and Saif al-Adl were pragmatic and prepared to put aside their sectarian differences, the al-Qaida rank and file were not. To many of them, brainwashed as they were by radical sectarian prejudice, it would almost be easier to work with the Israelis than with the Shia. So the budding relationship between al-Qaida and Hezbollah would prove short-lived. But the contact did produce yet another vital role for Saif al-Adl: He was put in charge of managing the organization’s nascent ties with elements of the Iranian regime.65

From its base in Sudan, al-Qaida extended its tentacles throughout East Africa. One of its first targets for expansion was Somalia, a fractious Muslim country in the Horn of Africa. Even before the move to Khartoum, al-Qaida had been training militants from Somalia, and some of these alumni had since returned home to found their own radical Islamist group.66 By the beginning of 1992, Somalia’s Marxist government—along with the country’s whole system of governance—had irrevocably collapsed. Much of the weaponry of its Soviet-equipped military had bled out into the hands of armed non-state groups, and a vicious civil war had broken out. All this seemed to make Somalia ripe for jihad.

Bin Ladin sent Saif al-Adl to explore the possibility of expanding operations in Somalia.67 Initially, the outlook seemed gloomy. A shattered kaleidoscope of tribal alliances and enmities made working with any one clan impossible without alienating another. Moreover, the battle-hardened leaders among the Somali Islamists did not appreciate foreign commanders bossing them around. And these leaders faced problems of their own in the shape of insubordination in the ranks and a chronic lack of public support for their activities. But these prospects were set to change, courtesy of the United States. Shortly after Saif’s arrival, during the final weeks of the George H. W. Bush presidency, the United Nations authorized a humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Operation Restore Hope commenced in December 1992 with the deployment of 1,800 U.S. Marines to the Somali capital, Mogadishu.68 Suddenly, al-Qaida, the Somali Islamists, and the clans had a common enemy. Mustafa Hamid wrote to Saif, urging him to seize the day:

When you entered Somalia, the Somali arena was barren and futile. The situation changed, however, after the intervention by America and the Knights of the Cross. You most resembled a hunter aiming his rifle at the dead branch of a tree, with no leaves or birds on it. Suddenly, a bald eagle lands on the branch of the tree, directly in line with the rifle. Shouldn’t the hunter pull the trigger to kill the eagle or at least bloody it? Fire at the bald eagle. Kill the Knights of the Cross. God is with you.… Kill them where you catch them; expand urban terror; plant mines on the roads; use all the covert weapons of war from rumor to strangulation, poisons, explosions, lightning attacks on small targets, and sniping.69

Saif traveled to the south of the country to establish a camp at Kaambooni, on the Kenyan border.70 This soon became the base for attacks against U.S.-allied international forces deployed under the U.N. peacekeeping mandate. On one occasion, Saif’s fighters ambushed a Belgian patrol, surrounded it, and shot three Belgian soldiers. “A lot of bullets were used and there was a lot of bloodshed,” Saif told his masters in Khartoum. Soon afterward, Belgian forces withdrew. “Thank God,” Saif wrote, “we drove the Belgian contingent out of Somalia.”71 The United Nations replaced the Belgians in the south with an Indian force.72 Saif targeted the Indians in the same way he had their predecessors. His men set traps around the Indian base at Bilis Qooqaani and attacked the camp with grenades and rocket launchers, killing at least four of its defenders.73 The al-Qa`ida commander reported that raids such as these were a great tool for recruiting local youths to the jihadi cause74 and suggested a concerted hearts-and-minds campaign to win further support.75 In his optimism, Saif even adopted a new nom de guerre—Omar al-Somali, “Omar the Somalian.”76

The biggest prize, however, would be a successful attack on U.S. troops, and the best place for that would be close to their main base of operations in Mogadishu. Saif took a small al-Qaida team to the city, including Abu Muhammad al-Masri.77 As he had done in Afghanistan, he proceeded to train fighters to shoot missiles at helicopters.78 In an inversion of his earlier experience, however, now the weapons were Russian and the targets American. On the afternoon of October 3, 1993, two MH-60 Black Hawks participating in an anti-terror operation in central Mogadishu were brought down within a few blocks of each other using Soviet-made rocket launchers.79 It has been reported that one of the rockets was fired by a Tunisian member of Saif’s al-Qaida squad.80 In the ensuing ground battle, 18 U.S. personnel died and 84 were wounded. One Black Hawk crew member was taken prisoner, and the bodies of several others were dragged through the streets and pummeled by an angry mob. Saif and his men may have participated directly in the fighting on the ground;81 at the very least, the downing of the Black Hawks would likely not have been possible without Saif’s military training.

Three days after the Battle of Mogadishu, with one of the Black Hawk pilots still held hostage, President Clinton announced the staged withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia.82 To many in al-Qa`ida, including its leader, the lesson was clear: Strike the United States, create some lurid images, and the serpent would soon withdraw. Mustafa Hamid again wrote to Saif and his “Africa Corps” to congratulate them on what he called their “splendid victory”:

The Somali experience confirmed the spurious nature of American power and that it has not recovered from the Vietnam complex. It fears getting bogged down in a real war that would reveal its psychological collapse at the level of personnel and leadership. Since Vietnam America has been seeking easy battles that are completely guaranteed.83

If al-Qa`ida could preserve and nurture the military expertise gained in Somalia, Hamid argued, it would prove “a successful Islamic arsenal in the severe confrontation with the pagan tyranny of the Jewish West.”84 Moreover, Somalia itself could be a promising base for future jihad. “Plant firm pillars there,” Hamid urged, “and go on working in an adjacent or nearby geographical field in preparation for a battle in which you will wrest away from the adversary additional retreats on the flanks.”85

This advice went unheeded. As in Afghanistan a few years before, the invading superpower would not be the only force to cut and run. In 1995, the year after the United States left, bin Ladin ordered the withdrawal of almost all remaining al-Qaida forces in Somalia. Mustafa Hamid was furious, describing this emerging pattern of deployment and retreat as “stupid.”86 But Saif al-Adl had helped inflict on the United States its first major blow of the post-Cold War era. In the process, he had cleared the way for the eventual rise of the al-Qa`ida-aligned al-Shabaab militia.

Yemen
For now, however, bin Ladin’s attention had turned north, across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. There, in the defeat of the socialist faction in the 1994 civil war, bin Ladin saw “clear evidence for a rejection of all secular and atheist regimes across the region,” and perhaps even “a new beginning in the implementation of the Prophet’s will of expelling all unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula.”87 Al-Qa`ida had, in fact, been funding and training Yemeni operatives for combat against the socialists since the late 1980s,88 and had begun shipping weapons across the straits from Somalia in the early 1990s.89 In 1989, bin Ladin had proposed a partnership with the Saudi government to bring about regime change in its southern neighbor, but he had been rebuffed.90

Saif al-Adl traveled to Yemen in 1995, the year of al-Qaida’s withdrawal from Somalia, and set about creating a Yemeni franchise for al-Qaida. As in Somalia, he found that things were not so simple.91 Once again, the complex faultlines between the various tribes were enough to confound even the best-informed outsider. Moreover, with unification in 1990 and the end of Yemen’s civil war in 1994, many local militants had simply lost interest in carrying on their fight by violent means.92 Meanwhile, the North Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, now in control of the entire country, was in the process of rounding up and deporting foreign fighters—as many as 14,000 of them in 1995 and 1996 alone.93 But Saif did, in fact, succeed in laying the foundations for an al-Qaida presence in Yemen that, in the guise of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), endures to the present day.

Years later, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would tell his U.S. captors at Guantánamo Bay that he had first linked up with Saif al-Adl during the latter’s mid-1990s mission to Yemen.94 These claims are, of course, difficult to verify; but whenever and wherever Saif and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first met, their ideas would go on to shape the next phase of al-Qaida’s existence. The occasionally stormy relationship between these two powerful personalities—one a careful soldier, the other a wild-eyed killer—would expose veins of conflict that ran right to the heart of the organization.

Saif al-`Adl in Afghanistan before 9/11. (Source: screen capture from a video exhibit available on the website of the Department of Defense’s Office of Military Commissions)

Return to Afghanistan
In 1996, Sudan reluctantly gave in to growing international pressure and expelled bin Ladin and al-Qaida. On May 18, he left the country in a Sudanese private jet in the company of a handful of his closest associates, including Saif al-Adl; the others would follow later.95 While al-Qaida had been away from Afghanistan, the Taliban movement had come to dominate much of the country. When bin Ladin arrived in Jalalabad, 80 miles east of Kabul, the city was not yet under Taliban control (it would fall a few months later, in September 1996), but for the time being, al-Qaida enjoyed the protection of the reigning local warlords—largely thanks to the foresight of Saif al-Adl, who had dispatched his own personal secretary to strike up a relationship with them several years before.96 These warlords now offered bin Ladin the use of a former royal palace, gave him a spacious tract of land on which to build a compound, and even, in an act of symbolic Pashtun hospitality, transferred title to his old hideout in the mountains of Tora Bora.97 Characteristically, bin Ladin eschewed the more salubrious alternatives and chose the mountain. He ordered al-Qaida’s senior leadership and their families to move to a squalid base lacking electricity, running water, or even doors on many of the buildings. On their first visit to the dusty, trash-strewn site, the sheikh enthused about the rugged life in store for them at Tora Bora. As bin Ladin’s teenaged son Omar surveyed the scene in disbelieving horror, Saif maintained the stony composure that had become his hallmark.98

Just three days after bin Ladin, Saif, and the rest of the leadership touched down in Jalalabad, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaida’s second-in-command, who was also the head of its operations in Africa, was killed in a ferry disaster on Lake Victoria.99 Saif led an investigation into his death, dispatching his personal secretary and a future leader of al-Shabaab, Harun Fazul, to carry out the groundwork. The investigation concluded that al-Banshiri’s death had indeed been an accident.100 Al-Banshiri was well liked and deeply mourned; al-Qaida named a training camp in his honor, and to this day its leaders still quote poetry written about him. But al-Banshiri’s death did mean another sudden promotion for Saif al-Adl. Functionally, he was now al-Qaida’s number three, behind bin Ladin and the military chief, Abu Hafs al-Masri.

On August 23, 1996, a mere 14 weeks after his return to Afghanistan, bin Ladin publicly declared jihad against the United States. His new message of global confrontation with the United States appealed to many jihadis but by no means all. In late 1996, a few months after bin Ladin’s declaration of war, a band of around 40 fighters, mainly Gulf Arabs, veterans of the war in Bosnia, arrived in the north of Afghanistan to battle the Soviets in nearby Tajikistan.101 When this plan failed to materialize, the fighters were taken to Kabul, where they met with Usama bin Ladin and other al-Qa`ida leaders, including Saif.

Bin Ladin laid out his case for jihad against the Americans, in terms redolent of his August declaration of war. When he was done, around half of the fighters decided to stay and pledge baya to him, while the other half opted to depart. As one of their number later explained, “The Brothers from the Northern Group are fighters who fight the enemy face-to-face. They don’t understand Bin Laden’s war and the new jihad, so they went home.” Of those who remained, some made their pledges of allegiance conditional; if another jihad with a clearer justification opened up elsewhere, they would be at liberty to depart and fight that war instead. But the presence of more Gulf Arabs in al-Qaida lent legitimacy to bin Ladin’s claim that he was engaged in liberating the Arabian Peninsula from infidel occupation. Many of the Northern Group operatives who stayed with him would prove critical to future attacks against U.S. interests, including 9/11 itself.

Saif played an ever more central role as al-Qaida found its feet in the new Afghanistan and focused on the global jihad against the United States. At the ever-shifting war front between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, Saif coordinated al-Qaida fighters supporting the Islamists.102 On the rare occasions when the sheikh insisted on venturing near to the fighting, Saif would oversee his security.103 Training was still part of his portfolio, but increasingly only for the most advanced recruits; having been instructed by Saif al-Adl was now a sign that a fighter was destined for special operations.104 Saif handpicked students for courses covering target selection, information gathering, kidnapping, and assassination, favoring those exhibiting dedication, discipline, and high moral character.105 His methods remained as brutal as ever; one practical exercise he assigned would involve kidnapping fellow trainees in the dead of night and, in the words of one al-Adl alumnus, “beat[ing] them into submission.”106 Apparently, Saif considered this harsh treatment of their colleagues justified in the name of giving his students the necessary experience.

Graduates of the Afghan camps in these days would go on to rule over al-Qa`ida franchises as far afield as Yemen, the Maghreb, and Syria.107 For a select few, Saif also taught an “advanced commando course” at the Mes Aynak camp near Kabul, where promising recruits learned to maneuver in the dark, fight at close quarters, and shoot targets while riding a motorcycle.

Yet Saif’s most important role in al-Qaida in this period was to provide security for the organization and its emir. The Egyptian was now a permanent fixture of bin Ladin’s close entourage,108 and he commanded, as well as trained, the sheikh’s corps of personal bodyguards—called the Black Guard for the scarves they wore that masked all but their eyes.109 The need for such protection had never been more acute; the sheikh was in danger of his life more so than ever. Threats emanated from the Northern Alliance, from foreign intelligence agencies, and especially from the adversaries al-Qaida had always feared the most—rival jihadis, particularly those of the takfiri school, who laid heavy emphasis on declaring fellow Muslims “apostates.”110 It is likely that Saif had trained bin Ladin’s guards to be hypervigilant in spotting such men, whom even al-Qaida operatives considered particularly dangerous. On one occasion, the head of bin Ladin’s security detail, a Saif al-Adl protégé, burst into a meeting with a local takfiri and beat the man bloody because he had seen him through the keyhole gesticulating for emphasis as he made a point and thought the man was trying to lunge at bin Ladin.111

Within a year of bin Ladin’s arrival in Afghanistan, the Taliban had foiled yet another assassination attempt against him—but not until the assassins had come within earshot of the place where bin Ladin and his guards were sleeping. Taliban fighters killed a number of the attackers, and Saif personally interrogated the survivors, who claimed to have been sent by Saudi intelligence.112 A few weeks later, in March 1997, with Jalalabad once again threatened by a Northern Alliance advance, al-Qa`ida moved to the firmly Taliban-controlled southwest. Saif coordinated and led the convoy.113 They occupied Tarnak Farm, a disused agricultural cooperative near the decaying remains of a Soviet airbase.114 The compound was large, with some 80 family homes, an office block, and its own mosque, wheat silo, water tank, general store, and medical clinic.115 In an emergency, the buildings could be evacuated via underground tunnels, something that must have pleased the meticulous security chief, although Saif’s frugality seems to have precluded him from following the fashion on the base of installing a private bomb shelter at his own home.116

To protect al-Qa`ida’s communications, Saif used his cryptographic training to devise the ingenious “Salahuddin” code system, a grid with more than a quarter of a million possible combinations.117 He drafted public service announcement flyers urging members to adopt basic counterintelligence precautions like keeping official business on a need-to-know basis, having their hair and beards cut before traveling, and moving their watches to the left wrist—rather than the right as was traditional for the mujahideen.118 Saif instituted security screening for new recruits119 and reserved the right to expel members based on little besides his own feelings of suspicion.120

Saif also established a cadre of intelligence operatives, some 50 in number.121 This intelligence service claimed to have succeeded in unmasking a great many spies, including one who purportedly confessed to a plot to assassinate bin Ladin with so-called dirty bombs containing nuclear waste.122 On another occasion, members noted that a certain Jordanian recruit possessed a suspiciously large amount of cash, seemed to know little about war-fighting, and had in his passport a valid Afghan visa—a formality on which few self-respecting mujahideen would waste their time. When this Jordanian was overheard talking in code to his handler in Jordan, the game was up. Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qa`ida’s head of training, drove the Jordanian to a camp south of Kabul to bring him before bin Ladin.

Furious at this breach of security, Saif rounded up a posse of fighters and brought them to the camp, thirsting for vengeance. But Abu Muhammad appealed to Saif’s pragmatic side. It would be better, he said, to hand over the Jordanian to the Taliban authorities. Al-Qaida did not want a repeat of ugly incidents in the past when an accused spy had been beaten to death and another had been summarily executed. This was the Taliban’s country, and al-Qaida must live under their laws. “Al-Qaeda does not want to be accused of taking the law into its own hands,” al-Masri said. Saif agreed to hand over the spy but continued his own investigation into the breach. The Taliban allowed him to interrogate the Jordanian. Saif brought along bin Ladin’s chief bodyguard, Abu Jandal—“The Father of Death”—who repeatedly hit the prisoner. He also procured intelligence on the Jordanian from a well-known compatriot who had also recently arrived in Afghanistan, a petty criminal turned Islamist radical named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.123

First Attacks on the United States
“Fix the car,” Saif told bin Ladin’s driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, one day in early August 1998.124 Hamdan was taken aback. “The car’s fine,” he said. “Get it fixed anyway,” Saif replied, “and tune it up. We’ll be on the move soon.” A few days later, Saif ordered Tarnak Farm evacuated. Hamdan drove bin Ladin away, while Saif took his family to another compound in his own truck. Later, he returned and ordered defensive trenches dug around the perimeter, especially near the guard posts. “Preventative measures,” he told the fighters. “The Americans are going to bomb us soon.”

Hours later, on the morning of August 7, 1998, two massive truck bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, killing 224 people and wounding nearly 5,000. The die was cast. Al-Qa`ida was no longer simply sponsoring acts of terror carried out by others; it was committing them itself. The seeds Saif had planted during his time in East Africa had germinated and borne fruit. Harun Fazul, who had been Saif’s personal secretary before going on to lead the cell that carried out the bombings, called his vicious handiwork “[t]he first act in the war against the Americans.”125 Saif himself was evidently pleased with the carnage his protégés had wrought; according to those who saw him shortly after the bombings, he allowed a rare smile to creep across his face.126

Saif was prudent to evacuate Tarnak in anticipation of U.S. retaliation. On August 20, some al-Qaida compounds in Afghanistan were hit by Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean (although ultimately Tarnak itself was removed from the target list). Some 20 militants died in the onslaught. Saif, bin Ladin, and the other al-Qaida leaders survived unscathed.127 Nevertheless, Saif bolstered bin Ladin’s security detail. The emir’s bodyguard was now composed almost entirely of Yemenis, whom Saif had chosen in part for what he saw as their ingrained “culture of revenge.”128

After the bombings and the retaliatory strikes, many leaders among the Taliban, and even within the Arab Afghan contingent itself, began to voice disquiet.129 Why provoke the United States? Why risk everything they had built in Afghanistan? Factions began to develop within the Arab community and the Taliban leadership—those for and against bin Ladin—representing a severe problem for al-Qaida. It was easy to imagine ill-feeling developing into an existential danger to the group and a mortal risk to its sheikh. To placate his critics among the Taliban, bin Ladin pledged baya to Mullah Omar as Commander of the Faithful—a title traditionally held by the caliphs of old. Evidently, however, bin Ladin was aware that this was unlikely to prove popular among many in the al-Qaida rank and file, who were keen to maintain the organization’s independence. He kept the pledge secret from most members outside the top leadership, including Abu Jandal, the head of his security detail, for several months. After the attack on the USS Cole, the al-Qaida leader not only made his bay`a public, but further placated his host by doubling down on his pledge of loyalty; in a speech at the wedding of his son Mohammed, he explicitly referred to Mullah Omar as the caliph of the Muslims.130

Despite his extravagant flattery of Mullah Omar, it seems likely that bin Ladin pledged fealty to the Taliban not because he felt it was right but because he had to. For some traditionalists, however, such a utilitarian view of bayat ran counter to the sacred nature of the institution. Abu Jandal was distraught when he eventually found out about his master’s pledge to the Taliban, believing that it made al-Qaida little better than a wholly owned subsidiary of the Afghan regime.131 He confided in Saif al-Adl his fear that “al-Qaeda would be absorbed into the Taliban and that would be the end of [bin Ladin’s] independent jihad against the Americans.” Ever the pragmatist, Saif reassured Jandal that bin Ladin had merely been “constrained by circumstances.” This explanation did not satisfy the bodyguard. Baya was a matter of religion, he said, and religion cannot be changed. This perceived betrayal of principle became a major factor in Jandal’s decision to leave al-Qaida temporarily in 1999, and in his permanent break with the organization a year later.

Mentoring al-Zarqawi
Despite the resultant political and security headaches, the embassy attacks had shown what external operations could achieve in this new, highly disciplined al-Qaida that Saif al-Adl had done so much to create. When the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi arrived in Afghanistan in the second half of 1999, Saif viewed it as essential to pull him into al-Qaida’s orbit. He argued that al-Zarqawi could be just what al-Qaida needed to plant its flag in the Levant—and, more urgently at the time, to prevent him from falling in with a rival jihadi group run by Abu Musab al-Suri.132

Al-Zarqawi was a fiercely independent operator; for now, he had no intention of pledging allegiance to al-Qaida or allowing bin Ladin to control his activities.133 But Saif convinced bin Ladin to give al-Zarqawi resources to set up a guesthouse and small training camp inside Afghanistan, near Herat in the far west of the country beside the Iranian border.134 Al-Zarqawi’s organization would go on to become al-Qaida’s franchise in Iraq and eventually morph into the group known today as the Islamic State.a

The USS Cole attack
Less than a week after the turn of the millennium, on Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of Ramadan, Usama bin Ladin summoned dozens of senior al-Qa`ida members and other Arab Afghans to hear him preach a sermon at his compound of Tarnak Farm. The emir rallied the troops. “We are like mountains of stone against anti-Muslim aggression,” he told them, assuredly prophesying the imminent downfall and dismemberment of the United States, just as the Soviet Union had fallen and broken apart after the Afghan jihad.135 A cameraman was on hand to record the proceedings, and among those in attendance, one can make out several of the men who would go on to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. In the days after the summit, at the same compound, and on the same video tape, two of the eventual hijackers would record themselves reading their last wills.

The same video also gives a first brief glimpse in years of the security chief Saif al-`Adl. He grins as he playfully jostles the camera. His hooded almond eyes are bracketed now by a black beard and a white turban. After a few seconds of mugging for the camera, he is gone, a face in the crowd once more.136

Around the same time, Saif could be seen leafing through an encyclopedia of warships, and lingering over the pages dealing with American destroyers;137 for those with eyes to see, this was an indication of al-Qaida’s next target. From the point of view of the inhabitants of Tarnak Farm, the organization’s attacks were by now falling into a familiar pattern: Bin Ladin and the military chief Abu Hafs al-Masri would develop the overall strategy and general target selection, while personnel, training, and execution were the responsibility of Saif al-Adl and the head of training, Abu Muhammad al-Masri.138 The Yemen cell struck on October 12, 2000, attacking the Arleigh Burke–class destroyer the USS Cole, which had docked to fill its fuel tanks. The suicide bomb tore a 40-foot gash in the ship’s hull, killing 17 crew members and wounding more than three dozen. Only the swift and sustained action of their comrades averted a fuel explosion that would almost certainly have sunk the vessel.139

Following the standard procedure established by Saif al-Adl, bin Ladin’s security was tightened again, and the Afghan compounds were evacuated.140 But this time, there would be no military retaliation, partly because the United States was then in the white heat of a bitterly fought and long drawn-out election campaign that was destined, within weeks, to wind up in the Supreme Court. The lack of a response did not please Usama bin Ladin. In the weeks following the attacks, he could be heard complaining bitterly, despite the boost to al-Qaida’s fundraising and recruitment efforts the Cole attack provided. As the 9/11 Commission would later write, “Bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger.”141

Following the USS Cole attack, many in al-Qaida, including Saif al-Adl, had expected, and prepared for, tougher reprisals;142 but none came. By the time it became clear that bin Ladin had been behind the suicide bombing, the United States’ attention was on the aftermath of the recent presidential election, which was limping toward resolution in the Supreme Court. Neither the outgoing Clinton administration nor its successor harbored much appetite for a retaliatory strike against al-Qa`ida at anything like the level of intensity that would be necessary to disrupt the organization.143

Al-Qa`ida could survive indefinitely this pattern of U.S. action—or, more frequently, inaction. In fact, in terms of propaganda, fundraising, and especially recruitment, the biggest attacks on the United States had so far raked in the biggest benefits.

In June 2001, after months, if not years, of deliberation, al-Qaida finally merged with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad, forming a new organization officially called al-Qaidat al-Jihad (The Base of Jihad).144 This arrangement gave Egyptian Islamic Jihad personnel, at a stroke, three of the top spots in the al-Qaida leadership, including that of deputy emir, which, of course, went to al-Zawahiri. Although himself an Egyptian, Saif had strongly opposed the merger.145 It was, as Saif was unafraid to point out, a woefully lopsided arrangement. Al-Qaida had around 400 pledged members, at least 250 of them in Afghanistan, of whom around 100 were actively engaged in fighting the Northern Alliance in the civil war still raging near Kabul. Al-Zawahiri’s group had just 10 members, and these men did little more than create propaganda. In any case, only half of them, just five individuals, were willing to go along with the merger. Why allow such a minuscule group to hijack much of the leadership of al-Qa`ida? Bin Ladin would not be dissuaded. For him, the matter had a personal dimension: al-Zawahiri had long served, in effect, as bin Ladin’s personal physician, treating him for his frequent bouts of fainting and kidney pain since his days fighting the Soviets in the 1980s.146 Seeing that the decision had been made, Saif fell into line.147 The merger was consummated, and Ayman al-Zawahiri became bin Ladin’s deputy.

The “Planes Operation”
Before leaving Egypt for the Soviet jihad in the late 1980s, Colonel Ibrahim Makkawi, the man so frequently mistaken for Saif al-`Adl, had mused to colleagues about the possibility of crashing aircraft into the Egyptian House of Representatives in Cairo—an idea that prompted many of Makkawi’s jihadi colleagues from this period to dismiss him as a dangerous crackpot.148 But the 9/11 attacks really began with the Pakistani terrorist facilitator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).

“It is not feasible,” bin Ladin told KSM when he first raised the Planes Operation in the fall of 1996.149 Nevertheless, he invited the Pakistani to join al-Qaida; the organization could make use of a militant with his diabolical imagination. KSM politely declined, but between about 1996 and 1998, he continued to curry favor with the al-Qaida leadership, deploying his technical skills to help his old contact Saif al-Adl with certain “computer and media projects” and other administrative tasks.150 But as the latter half of the 1990s wore on, KSM’s nightmare vision grew on bin Ladin. Ideologically, bin Ladin increasingly reasoned, it was right and proper to take any opportunity to strike the Great Satan; besides, these unprecedented atrocities would make al-Qaida unquestionably the premier militant Islamist group in the world.151

Bin Ladin was confident that the United States would never put an invasion force in Afghanistan.152 The Americans, he thought, would do what they always did—fire a few cruise missiles at a few camps, maybe carry out a couple of airstrikes, then retreat. A handful of fighters might die, but they would perish as martyrs—the better to drum up fresh recruits seeking paths of glory. At the very most, bin Ladin thought, the United States might send a commando detachment to capture or kill him. If that happened, he had a plan to thwart the raid, and humiliate the United States, by luring the Americans to their deaths in the mountains of Tora Bora—just as he had done with Soviet special forces at Jaji more than a decade before.153

Saif viewed the matter differently. It was not that he cared deeply about civilian casualties; in fact, Abu Jandal was to note that, among all of al-Qa`ida’s senior leaders, Saif was the one who “seemed least affected by the deaths of innocent civilians.”154 But Saif could see that KSM’s proposed attacks would be qualitatively different from hitting an embassy in a foreign capital or a warship in a faraway harbor. A strike on the U.S. homeland on the scale of the Planes Operation would represent a provocation orders of magnitude greater than either of these strikes.

With his military experience and his pragmatic frame of mind, Saif was perhaps better placed than any of his colleagues in al-Qaida’s upper echelons to foresee the disaster that would befall the organization if the Americans were indeed to put their full might into the response. As Saif’s father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, told bin Ladin, “The problem is not how to start the war but how to win the war.”155 If the Americans invaded, Saif must have realized, al-Qaida would face ruin, not just in Afghanistan but around the world. There was no viable plan for defending the “Islamic Emirate” against a concerted U.S. onslaught; and if the Taliban fell, what other government would step in to harbor the jihadis? Why risk destroying the entity al-Qa`ida regarded as the only true Islamic state on earth?

As for bin Ladin’s plan to lure U.S. troops to destruction at his mountain lair, to Saif’s mind this was sheer insanity.156 Tora Bora was not Jaji. The United States was not the Soviet Union. Far from being a good place to spring a clever trap, any tactician worth his salt could see that the isolated cave complex of Tora Bora would be acutely vulnerable to heavy aerial bombardment and a protracted siege—a strategy that would massively favor the Americans, with their unbridgeable advantages in manpower, technology, and logistics. If the United States did not seal up the passes, sooner or later the winter snows would take care of that for them. Surely starvation in the mountains—or, for that matter, incineration from above—was not the kind of glorious martyrdom bin Ladin had in mind?

A majority of al-Qaida’s shura council sided with Saif al-Adl against the Planes Operation.157 In fact, besides bin Ladin himself, only al-Zawahiri and a handful of others, including the EIJ members who came with him, were in favor of the strikes.158 Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the religious head of al-Qaida, wrote bin Ladin a letter couching his opposition in Qur’anic terms.159 Even Abu Hafs al-Masri, al-Qaida’s military chief, came out in opposition.160 But bin Ladin had convinced himself of the righteousness of KSM’s wild plan, and that was all that mattered. “I will make it happen,” the sheikh told his followers, “even if I do it by myself.”161

Privately, bin Ladin’s obstinacy in the face of sensible counsel frustrated Saif al-Adl. “If someone opposes him,” Saif later wrote, “he immediately puts forward another person to render an opinion in his support, clinging to his opinion and totally disregarding those around him, so there is no advice nor anything.”162 Once the decision was made, however, the doubters as usual fell into line. Saif, like the loyal soldier he was, now helped plan the very attacks he had opposed.163 At the same time, anticipating the rain of fire that 9/11 would call down, Saif began scouting for locations in which to shelter al-Qaida’s leaders in the aftermath. He soon concluded that their safest hiding place would be the Pakistani tribal stronghold of Waziristan.164

The Defense of Kandahar
In the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, in August 2001, Saif was appointed to lead the defense of the al-Qa`ida and Taliban citadel of Kandahar, together with its nearby airport and training camps.165 He began his preparations around two weeks before the attacks, with 75 fighters under his command—a number that would soon swell exponentially. Saif ordered trenches dug along a four-mile front around the airport and the Faruq camp166 and set traps to ensnare approaching enemy vehicles and men.167 He split the city into five sectors—one in the center and four around the outskirts. In addition, he created a rapid deployment force mounted on Toyota pickup trucks. The Toyotas, Saif found, were stealthy and highly maneuverable, whether in the mountains or on the flat plains. “If the Japanese had seen the vehicles in action,” he said, “they would have used them for marketing advertisements.”168

Not every item in al-Qaida’s arsenal was as impressive, however. The bulk of the fighters’ weaponry, like most of the matériel in Afghanistan, dated back to the Soviet era. Alongside the ubiquitous grenade belts and AK-47 assault rifles in various states of repair, Saif’s men possessed shoulder-fired Strela-2 surface-to-air missiles, a tank nicknamed “The Elephant,” and an ancient Chinese-made 12-tube BM rocket launcher.169 In place of field radios or the useful but too-easily traceable satellite phones, Saif created lines of communication using human couriers mounted on motorcycles or on horseback.170 When it came to zeal, his men wanted for nothing, and a commitment born of absolute faith goes a long way. Even so, Saif al-Adl the military realist might not have liked his chances against U.S. air superiority and Special Forces prowess.

At the beginning of September, bin Ladin gathered all the residents of Tarnak Farm at the mosque. “An operation is about to happen,” he told them. “We will be evacuating this compound.” This much was, by now, familiar protocol. As with previous attacks, bin Ladin got into a car, this time heading north, accompanied by his son Uthman and a laptop bag full of U.S. dollars.171 To minimize the very real threat of a decapitation strike, Saif al-`Adl had instructed bin Ladin’s bodyguards to keep him on the move between safe houses in Kabul and Jalalabad.172 Saif said farewell to his sheikh and got back to firming up the defenses for the coming war.

In order to appease Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership in advance of the 9/11 attacks, Saif and others had hatched a plan to kill the Northern Alliance supreme commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. It was hoped that Massoud’s death would disorient the enemy and pave the way for a final Taliban takeover of all territory still held by the alliance. The killers were to enter Massoud’s camp posing as documentary filmmakers seeking to interview the commander. As part of their cover, the attackers would claim to be Belgians of Moroccan origin; in fact, they were Tunisians, but had spent some time in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that was home to many of the Islamic State terrorists who attacked Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016.173 When they sat down for the interview, the assassins would explode a suicide belt and a booby-trapped battery pack.174

Saif arranged for the assassins to be trained for this mission by the man who had built the two East Africa truck bombs,175 while bin Ladin’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri had letters of introduction forged in clumsy French—a language Massoud knew from having been educated at an elite French-run school in Kabul—to get the phony journalists admitted to Massoud’s presence.176 Around the same time Saif al-`Adl began sinking trenches at the Kandahar airport, the assassins were entering the Northern Alliance camp 400 miles away to the northeast. Two weeks later, on September 9, they finally sat down with Massoud. One of the men told the translator his three opening questions, each of which concerned Massoud’s assumed enmity for bin Ladin. Before the first question could be translated, the assassins exploded their devices with a burst of blue flame, piercing Massoud’s heart with shards of metal. The blast blew one of the assassins apart; the other escaped, only to be captured and killed by Massoud’s bodyguards. Within minutes, in the back of a car sent to speed him to the nearest field hospital, Massoud himself was dead.177 Two days later, the “Planes Operation” was carried out.

Saif al-Adl estimated that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, more than 2,000 fighters rallied to Afghanistan from all over the world, equivalent to five times al-Qaida’s total strength worldwide at that time.178 These men did not necessarily become formal al-Qaida members, but they gathered under bin Ladin’s standard nonetheless. Most of the new recruits probably came looking for yet another “tourist jihad.” Like bin Ladin, they would have expected the United States, as in the past, to make a show of force with some missiles and then move on. The tourists would get to feel the heat of explosions, maybe take a few potshots at some planes, then return home to tell their war stories and bask in the adulation of their friends. Lists began circulating for volunteers to register their interest in al-Qaida’s so-called martyrdom brigades, those to be sent to the frontlines in the event of an invasion. By the end of October 2001, 120 men had signed up, around the same number of fighters that al-Qa`ida had in total fighting the Northern Alliance before 9/11.179

But this was not going to be like previous attacks. Knowing only too well what lay over the horizon, Saif al-Adl set about evacuating Kandahar. He ordered one of his fighters, an alumnus of the East African attacks, to take some Arab families across the border to safety in Iran, where Saif had arranged for their arrival and protection with his contacts among the Quds Force.180 “Get in your truck right away and take the families,” he told the man. The fighter was incredulous. “Why are you sending me?” he protested. In his hand, the man brandished a copy of Time magazine showing his own face, beside those of Saif al-Adl, Usama bin Ladin, and 19 others the United States had named on its first-ever public list of Most Wanted Terrorists. “I’m wanted by the Americans!” the man protested. “I have millions of dollars on my head because of the embassy bombings.” He pleaded to be sent to safety in Pakistan instead. But Saif had no time for special pleading. “I am ordering you,” he said. “Go.”

On October 7, 2001, the first night of coalition aerial bombardment, explosions rocked al-Qa`ida camps near Kandahar and Kabul. Later, Saif drove to Tarnak Farm to survey the damage. Over the course of just a few hours of bombing, fully one-quarter of the 80 family homes had been reduced to rubble. Soon, the compound would be for practical purposes completely destroyed.181 Raids on targets in and around Kandahar intensified still further after U.S. Marines seized a landing strip around 80 miles distant.182 Saif watched as the skies above the city filled with fast jets, B-52 high-altitude bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, cruise missiles, and—perhaps most worryingly of all—C-130 Hercules heavy lifters, of the type used to mount airborne howitzer cannons and to deliver the U.S. military’s heaviest ordnance. These war machines waged, in Saif’s words, “a stormy campaign.”183

Nor was there much encouragement to be gleaned out of news from elsewhere in Afghanistan. On November 9, U.S. precision bombs hit Taliban positions in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. From out of the smoke of these explosions, there came galloping, almost incredibly, the first massed cavalry charge of the 21st century. Hundreds of Northern Alliance horsemen, riding alongside U.S. special operators, soon overran the city. Within a day, it had fallen to the coalition. Four days later, the Northern Alliance took the Afghan capital, Kabul. Herat, the city where Saif al-Adl had helped create a camp for the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, fell the same day,184 forcing Saif’s father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, to flee over the border into Iran. Barely two months since the Planes Operation, al-Qaida and its Taliban allies had already lost functional control of the entire northern half of Afghanistan.

At this moment of crisis, Saif al-Adl was suddenly thrust even further to the fore. On the night of November 15, 2001 coalition missiles hit the home of al-Qaida’s military chief, Abu Hafs al-Masri, crumpling it into a pile of stones at the bottom of a deep crater. While most al-Qaida commanders had evacuated, Abu Hafs had been unable to do so because of a slipped disk in his back. He was crushed beneath the concrete of his own house.185 Nearby lay the corpse of another erstwhile colleague of Saif al-Adl’s—the Tunisian who had shot down a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu eight years before.186

With Abu Hafs gone, Saif al-Adl was next in line to be al-Qaida’s military leader. Once again, the unlooked-for death of a senior fighter had spelled advancement for the Egyptian. But this battlefield promotion had come in the worst possible circumstances. In Kandahar, which was facing a ground war within weeks, there was no time to grieve. Saif convened an emergency meeting of senior Arab Afghans and Taliban leaders to firm up the city’s defenses. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attended, as did Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, fresh from the destruction of his camp at Herat.187 A number of senior figures from the other Arab groups operating out of Afghanistan also joined the gathering. Collectively, they appointed Saif al-Adl commander over all the Arab fighters in Kandahar, and for this limited purpose, they all gave baya to al-Qa`ida. Ironically, by creating an emergency on an unprecedented scale, 9/11 had, albeit indirectly, accomplished bin Ladin’s dream of uniting all the Arab groups under his banner; but this state of affairs would prove short-lived, for Kandahar was almost lost.188

Around the first day of December 2001, halfway through Ramadan, one of Saif’s men noticed a scout vehicle on a broken bridge near the airport. The man opened fire on the vehicle, and its occupants responded with a few volleys of their own before speeding away. It was then, as Saif would write later, that “hell broke out in the area.”

Airplanes came from every direction and in all kinds. C-130s attacked, jets attacked with missiles, helicopters attacked with missiles and guns. The area was transformed into a ball of fire for more than an hour. Gul Agha’s [Northern Alliance] forces began to advance again, assured that there were no breathing souls left in the area other than their forces. As soon as they entered the killing field, bombs of the youngsters [al-Qa`ida fighters] rained on them from every direction, and they [Gul Agha’s men] were gunned down with machine guns. Calls of “God is great” and “victory” were screamed aloud. The brothers killed many of them and captured two. The rest fled. It was a success by the will of God Almighty.189

There followed five relentless days and nights of what Saif termed “wild combat,” alternating between coalition airstrikes and Northern Alliance ground offensives. Saif commandeered the Kandahar Religious Institute and had it set up as a field kitchen for al-Qaida fighters, serving three meals a day.190 The Egyptian commander could be seen speeding up and down the frontlines, barking orders at the Arabs under his command who surrounded the city. Saif’s strategy emphasized the need to confound the airborne enemy with small targets, constantly in motion; he had therefore divided his forces into many tight-knit, mobile units.191 These cells roamed the city and the airport in trucks with missile and rocket launchers bolted to their flatbeds.192 B-52 bombers sailed overhead. Three days into the fighting, a guided bomb destroyed the Chinese BM rocket launcher. Then the tank called The Elephant took a direct hit from a missile. A number of militants were killed in a fierce, close-quarters battle on the roads around the airport, in which one al-Qaida commander could be seen, in Saif’s words, “harvesting the souls of the enemy.”193 At times, however, Saif had difficulty controlling the fighters, who would get excited in the white heat of combat and abandon their assigned positions, or else waste scarce ammunition by shooting at aircraft wildly out of range of their weapons.194

Around the same time, speaking by satellite phone from his position with U.S. Special Forces north of Kandahar, Hamid Karzai addressed delegates at the Bonn Conference deciding the future of Afghanistan. On December 5, 2001, even as Karzai continued his advance on the city, the conference named him the interim president of his country. Buoyed by this vote of confidence, Karzai demanded the unconditional surrender of Kandahar. In the days that ensued, many Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar himself, bowed to the inevitable and fled to avoid capture or death. Al-Qaida’s senior leaders, too, began pouring out of the city; reportedly some two dozen of them left together one day in a single convoy.195 On December 9, 2001 Northern Alliance troops finally took the city, scattering its defenders and their commanders. Like his comrades and underlings, Saif al-Adl took to the hills.

The Aftermath
On December 8, 2001 Saif had reached Zurmat, close to the border with Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal region he had recommended as a place to lie low.196 A number of senior al-Qa`ida and Taliban leaders gathered in the town, including Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who would later be Saif’s prison-mate in Iran. Over the next few days, Saif made his way through the mountains and over the border into Pakistan,197 where he was to spend the next few months in hiding. After the mayhem of Kandahar in the days before its fall, Saif’s stay in Pakistan must have come as a welcome respite. There, he enjoyed breathing space and even some time to relax. A fellow militant who visited him in this period remembers playing soccer with him one day before lunch. “He was a really good player,” the man observed. “Sharp and fast.”198

Saif had no illusions about the scale of the disaster that had befallen al-Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Hafs al-Masri, its supreme military commander, lay dead. By Saif’s own reckoning, more than 500 Arab Afghans, including many al-Qaida members, had either been killed or had fled.199 Others had been captured, in Afghanistan or over the border in Pakistan; some of them now languished in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The surviving members of the shura council were scattered. Bin Ladin and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had gone on the run. The immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban was, to a practical man like Saif al-`Adl, a time to regroup, assess the damage, and start rebuilding the organization from the ground up. Yet, to Saif’s lasting horror and amazement, some operatives, even now, hastened to carry on the fight as if nothing had happened. Foremost among them was the man whose demented vision had spawned 9/11 in the first place—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In January 2002, Saif al-Adl had received word that a British Islamist, Omar Sheikh, together with a crew of foot soldiers from various extremist groups, had kidnapped the Wall Street Journal’s Islamabad bureau chief, Daniel Pearl, in Karachi. Saif called KSM, who was then hiding out in the city, and told him the news. “These people don’t know what to do with him,” Saif told KSM. “They want to know if we want him.” Saif ordered KSM to take custody of Pearl on behalf of al-Qaida.200 But he also instructed him that it would be a bad idea to kill the hostage.201 KSM simply disregarded this order. Within days of the kidnapping, he had taken the journalist to an al-Qaida safe house, slit his throat, and beheaded him on camera202 in the kind of snuff video that was shortly to become a fixture of the insurgency in Iraq, under the influence of another protégé of Saif al-Adl’s, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. So eager was KSM to be about his bloody business that he acted before the camera operator had put a tape into the machine; the video failed to capture the initial butchery, only the decapitation of Daniel Pearl’s mutilated corpse.203 After the killing, KSM dismembered Pearl’s body, buried the pieces in a shallow grave, and had the tape delivered to Western media.204 b

Saif al-Adl was incandescent with rage. On June 13, 2002, he sent Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the second of two vituperative letters containing an extraordinary indictment, not just of KSM, but of bin Ladin himself and the blind zealotry that had dragged al-Qaida to the brink of the abyss. He wrote:

Today we are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster. There is a new hand that is managing affairs and that is driving forcefully; every time it falters, it gets up and rushes again, without understanding or awareness. It rushes to move without vision, and it is in a hurry to accomplish actions that now require patience because of the security activity throughout the whole world. This hand does not pay attention to what is happening, as if we will not be summoned to account before God for all these souls, this blood, and this money. The consequences that you see are nothing but an outcome of this onrush. Had I spoken before the disasters occurred—and speak I did—I would have been considered proud, but now that the matter has become a reality, I have absolved my conscience. You are the person solely responsible for all this because you undertook the mission, and in six months we have lost what took years to build.205

Bin Ladin, Saif told the Pakistani, “pushes you relentlessly and without consideration, as if he has not heard the news and does not comprehend events.” In light of the damage already done, al-Qaida “must completely halt all external actions until we sit down and consider the disaster we caused,” lest the organization “become a joke for all the intelligence agencies in the world.” Saif ordered KSM to “[s]top all foreign actions. Stop sending people to captivity. Stop devising new operations, regardless of whether orders come or do not come from Abu Abdullah.”206 Abu Abdullah, as KSM knew very well, meant Usama bin Ladin. Saif’s letter was eventually made public, having been intercepted by U.S. forces. No doubt bin Ladin took umbrage at the letter’s explicit call for insubordination; it may be for this reason that he later disparaged Saif, who had played a pivotal role in al-Qaida’s history, as of secondary importance to Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who as head of training was below Saif in the hierarchy, and Abu Khair al-Masri, an al-Zawahiri loyalist who had only been promoted to the shura council when the merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad was finalized.207

By any standard, the letter marks a singular moment for Saif al-Adl. The steadfast Egyptian, who for so many years had played the loyal, sensible soldier struggling to corral al-Qaida’s more hot-headed rank and file, had reached his breaking point. With this extraordinary letter, he had openly countermanded not just a superior officer but the commander in chief himself. It was an indication of just how seriously Saif took the unfolding emergency—and of just how deep was the abyss into which he felt al-Qa`ida had stumbled.

In public, however, al-Qaida’s many 9/11 skeptics had all fallen into line with bin Ladin’s exultant interpretation of events. Even Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, al-Qaida’s religious chief, whose original objection had been based on no less a source than the Qur’an itself, changed his tune. At the end of November 2001, with the Taliban ousted from Kabul and the mountains set to quiver under Tora Bora, al-Mauritani told the TV station Al Jazeera that he could not contain his “joy” over the attacks, as a result of which he confidently foresaw “the beginning of the end” for the United States.208

Saif al-`Adl maintained a similar mask of defiance. Shortly before his arrest in Iran, he published two articles in which he lauded the 9/11 hijackers as “heroes” whose “blessed operation” had ignited a “spark in the hearts of the youth of the umma.”209 Saif lionized the heroism of those killed in the Battle of Kandahar—so-called martyrs like “Hamza the Qatari … I personally felt the wonderful scent that was covering him … his face was wearing a beautiful smile, and what a smile that was … as well as Samir the Najdi who seemed very gracious and beautiful in death despite the blood covering his body.”210 Saif claimed victory in the ground battle for Kandahar, implicitly suggesting that the city would never have fallen were it not for the Taliban’s craven unwillingness to defend it. In describing his experience of warfare against the Americans in Afghanistan, he cited a verse from the Qur’an: “If they harm you, they can cause you but a slight hurt; and if they fight against you they will turn their backs and run away.”211

U.S. soldiers, Saif still insisted, were “not fit for combat.”212 They were “phonies,” puffed up by “Hollywood promotions,”213 able to take territory in Afghanistan only thanks to the Northern Alliance mercenaries in their pay.214 “The American soldier is qualified to perform cinematic roles only,” Saif assured his audience.215 “The mujahideen are still in the battlefield,” he went on, “and the fight continues, and will not end, God willing, until Afghanistan returns to Sharia and Islam once more.”216 This narrative, of course, conveniently eschews all mention of al-Qa`ida and the Taliban’s ignominious abandonment of Kandahar in December 2001.

As he makes clear, Saif wrote principally to encourage those preparing to fight the same foe in an altogether different part of the Muslim world:

We do not, by the will of God, doubt the final defeat of the American empire. What happened in Afghanistan is only one battle. The war is still going on and the victory is leaning towards the Army of Allah. This empire of Crusaders and Jews is walking to its destruction in the blessed region of the Gulf.217

Pakistan would not remain a safe haven for long. Its military leader, Pervez Musharraf, had sided with the West after 9/11, and the United States was putting his government under unprecedented pressure to round up al-Qaida suspects seeking sanctuary on its soil. Over the course of 2002, the authorities began closing in, snatching al-Qaida members from the streets of Pakistan’s cities.218 In March, Abu Zubaydah, a conspirator in the millennium plots who had worked alongside Saif al-Adl at Kandahar, was arrested after a shootout in Faisalabad.219 Six months later, and one year after 9/11, a key facilitator in the Planes Operation, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, was captured following another gun battle in a house with “There Is No God but Allah” scrawled on the walls in blood.220 The following March, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself was picked up in Rawalpindi after someone in the building texted authorities to tell them he was there.221 It seemed to some in al-Qaida’s leadership that they would have to find a different haven.

Iran
Before being taken into custody, KSM had reportedly established a relationship between al-Qaida and the gangs of smugglers who haunted his ancestral homeland of Baluchistan in southwestern Pakistan. In the wake of 9/11, these criminal groups had formed a pipeline to transport al-Qaida members through Baluchistan and into Iran. To begin with, the Iranian National Guard had turned a blind eye to the Arabs fleeing over the border to take up residence in the cities of Iran’s east. However, after an understandable outcry from the local population, Iranian intelligence had rounded up the first wave of fighters and their families and deported them, either back to Pakistan or onward to their home countries.222

Clearly, Iran was not going to be the safe haven some in al-Qaida had hoped. But the fighters still hiding in Pakistan were out of options. In the months that followed the first wave of mass deportations, a second group of al-Qaida members and families moved into Iran and spread out between a number of cities.223 As part of this second wave, Saif hid out in Shiraz with his old jihadi brothers-in-arms, Abu Khair and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, under the protection of local al-Qa`ida sympathizers.224 At first, Saif and his Arab colleagues were allowed to live in Iran, free but closely monitored;225 the authorities even helped some of the new arrivals get settled in the country. But Mustafa Hamid, who had been in Iran himself since having been forced out of Afghanistan after the fall of Herat, correctly speculated that the Iranians were simply biding their time, using the hiatus to gather as much intelligence as possible about the Arabs newly arrived on their soil.226 Sooner or later, the authorities would have to clamp down.

Around the close of 2002, operating out of his safe house in Shiraz, Saif received word that al-Qaida’s cell in Saudi Arabia was negotiating to buy three Russian nuclear weapons.227 For the United States and its allies, this was the nightmare scenario; in terms of its capacity for destruction and horror, a nuclear atrocity might outdo even 9/11. For al-Qaida, however, this lead on a clutch of “loose nukes” represented an opportunity to prove its enduring strength following the Afghan debacle. “If you can obtain such a weapon,” Saif told the cell’s leadership, “no price is too high to pay.”228 Still, he counseled caution; al-Qa`ida had been fooled by fakes before. Saif therefore advised his operatives in the kingdom to fly in a Pakistani nuclear scientist to check that the devices were genuine.229 Western intelligence, eavesdropping on these communications, took the potential threat seriously enough to share it not only with their Saudi counterparts but also, exceptionally, with the Iranians themselves.230

Around the same time, the Saudi cell was preparing plans of a more traditional terrorist nature. In an encrypted phone call in early March 2003, around the time Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being taken into U.S. custody in Rawalpindi and the U.S. invasion of Iraq was getting under way, Saif reportedly gave the cell’s leaders the order to proceed with a campaign of conventional bombings inside Saudi Arabia.231 It has been reported that the Saudi authorities intercepted and decrypted Saif’s phone call and furiously demanded that Iran take action to stop the al-Qa`ida leadership now operating from Iranian territory.232 Whatever steps were taken, they were not enough to prevent the deaths of around three dozen people on May 12, 2003 in suicide attacks on residential compounds in Riyadh used by foreign workers.

Finally, around April 2003, the al-Qaida members in Iran realized that they were being watched and began taking steps to evade Iranian monitoring. This discovery, at last, forced the authorities’ hand; fearing that al-Qaida might slip through their fingers, Iranian intelligence moved in.233 According to Mustafa Hamid, the ensuing dragnet pulled in practically every al-Qaida operative in the country, together with their families.234 Saif al-Adl was arrested on April 23, 2003, along with the companions who were living with him in the Shiraz safe house, Abu Khair and Abu Muhammad.235

The protean status of Saif and the other al-Qaida grandees during their long Iranian captivity is in many ways a reflection of the paradoxical relationship that developed between Sunni al-Qaida and the world’s foremost Shia power. On an ideological level, the two sides despised each other, and for this reason, their attempts to work together never quite came to fruition, as Saif al-Adl was painfully aware. Moreover, Tehran had long counted bin Ladin’s Afghan allies, the Taliban, among its more troublesome regional irritants.

On the other hand, Iran had at least two reasons to hold out the possibility of better conditions or even freedom. First, al-Qaida or its associated groups would from time to time get hold of Iranian diplomats as hostages, and Tehran would need bargaining chips to set them free. Secondly, Iran and al-Qaida shared common enemies in the shape of the ‘Great Satan,’ America, and its top Arab ally, Saudi Arabia.

It was therefore in Tehran’s interests to keep the al-Qaida leaders alive and reasonably well until such time as they proved useful, either as leverage or as attack dogs. Thus, while al-Qaida frequently bemoaned the imprisonment of its people in Iran in the same breath as that of their comrades more firmly incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay or black sites, the U.S. State Department simultaneously complained that “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa`ida members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.236 c

Immediately following their arrest in Shiraz in April 2003, Saif, Abu Khair, and Abu Muhammad found themselves hauled off to Tehran and jailed for around 20 months in the dungeons of a building belonging to Iran’s fearsome intelligence apparatus.237 They were held incommunicado and without charge; but nor were they mistreated or even formally interrogated.238 Around the beginning of 2005, they were moved to a spacious military compound with an apartment complex, a soccer field, and a mosque, adjacent to a training camp for one of the many Shia militant groups on Tehran’s payroll.239 Their families were allowed to join them, although at least one fellow detainee suspected that this was no more than a ruse to allow the Iranians to keep tabs on potentially troublesome family members.240 A few months later, Saif, Abu Khair, and Abu Muhammad were moved again, to an apartment block in a different part of the same military base.241 The Iranian authorities had split the al-Qaida detainees into four groups, one of which comprised most of the senior leaders as well as members of the bin Ladin family, including Usama bin Ladin’s son Hamza and his mother.242 Their new apartments, however, proved cramped, dingy, and unsanitary, to the point where some residents began to show signs of mental and physical illness.243 In mid-2008, the detainees staged a protest; the authorities broke up the demonstration and beat all the prisoners, including the women.244 Nevertheless, about a year later, the detainees and their families were moved once again, to a third area on the base, a walled-off section containing neat, recently refurbished houses, each with its own yard.245 But this was still a prison, after all. The houses stood surrounded by three layers of fences, of which the innermost was capped with razor wire and surveillance cameras.246

The prisoners remained restive. In fact, many seem to have considered this sedentary, secluded life even further beneath their dignity than the squalor of their previous accommodations; for these hardy mujahideen, the sense of suburban comfort only heightened their humiliation. One of them told his captors he would sooner be extradited to Israel than spend any more time in the gilded cage the Iranians had prepared for them.247 In March 2010, the prisoners staged what one detainee later described as “a huge act of disturbance.” This time, masked, black-clad Iranian troops were ordered in to storm the compound. The soldiers beat the men and some of the children, and hauled the senior detainees off to solitary confinement for 101 days.248

The detainees’ ability to communicate with the outside world seems to have varied tremendously over time. At first, they were held, as one U.S. official put it, “under virtual house arrest, not able to do much of anything.”249 Phone calls to family members were strictly limited.250 But the strictures gradually loosened, just as the detainees’ living conditions slowly improved.251 The Iranian authorities eventually set up a system whereby minders could send emails on behalf of their wards, and each week permitted one prisoner to browse the web, although full internet access was not allowed.252 And there were other ways of communicating with the outside. Saif al-Adl’s father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, who was held in Iran under looser conditions, visited the main group of detainees every few months.253 With his greater liberty, Hamid was in a position to serve as courier; indeed, this may be how Saif was able to publish his column on security and intelligence in the AQAP house magazine Muskar al-Battar.254 Other detainees managed to escape and bring manuscripts with them, like bin Ladin’s daughter Iman, who smuggled out the text of Sulayman Abu Ghayth’s Twenty Guidelines on the Path of Jihad—a book highly critical of al-Zarqawi’s violence against civilians in Iraq—and eventually had it published, with a foreword by another detainee, the former al-Qaida religious leader Abu Hafs al-Mauritani.255

Despite their restlessness, the detainees managed to create elements of their own miniature society behind bars. The men of the compound came together four times a day for prayers and conversation at the mosque.256 Requests to allow the children to attend school apparently went unmet; but Hamza bin Ladin’s mother, who is herself well educated, urged her son to pursue learning as best he could, and a group of senior detainees, including Saif, took it upon themselves to educate him in Qur’anic study, Islamic jurisprudence, and the hadith.257 In an audio message recorded years later, following his own release, Hamza praises his mentors in captivity—“my sheikhs through whose hands I was educated”—a short list that includes Saif.258

Al-Qaida lobbied hard for the release of its top men, and by 2010, the group had acquired a bargaining chip of its own. Two years previously, Pakistani tribal elements had kidnapped an Iranian diplomat and sold him as a hostage to al-Qaida. Through the Haqqani Network—one of the armed groups that protected al-Qaida’s hub in the Waziristan region of Pakistan—a form of prisoner swap was arranged.259 Under the terms of this agreement, starting in the second half of 2010, Saif was allowed to travel to Pakistan.260 In July of that year, bin Ladin’s factotum, Mahmud, wrote that Saif and others, though still in prison, would soon “come to help and to carry the burden … At present, they are relatively close, and they consult incrementally in matters.”261 As a result, he was free enough to act as interim leader upon bin Ladin’s death,262 securing pledges of baya from shura council members to confirm al-Zawahiri as the next permanent emir.263

However, as will become apparent in the next paragraph, it seems Saif later returned to captivity in Iran. The reason is not clear. His family, detained with him from the start,264 may have stayed behind, giving him a personal incentive to return (and perhaps affording the Iranians some leverage to coax him back); but it is also possible that al-Zawahiri sent him on a mission—to Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, for example—that required him to pass through the Islamic Republic on his way. Saif had served in the capacity of an emissary before and would do so again within a few years. Perhaps he was arrested in transit.

During the second half of 2011, the Iranian authorities offered Saif and other senior al-Qaida figures in custody a deal: they could leave Iran, provided they returned to their native countries. The reason for this offer is unclear, and a matter on which the author speculated in a previous article in this publication.265 In any event, some senior detainees took the deal, but the three senior Egyptians—Abu Muhammad, Saif al-Adl, and Abu Khair—all refused.266 This was prudent: Mubarak had been deposed, but Egypt was still governed by the armed forces. Egypt was not a safe place for marked men. At least in Iran they were allowed to live with their families; in Egypt they might very well face execution, as the Iranians were no doubt aware.

In July 2013, al-Qaida kidnapped another Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, in Yemen, home of AQAP.267 In 2015, another prisoner swap was agreed, and in September of that year, five al-Qaida leaders were released.268 Three of them, Abu Khair, Sari Shihab, and Khalid al-Aruri, made their way to Syria. Abu Khair and Sari Shihab were killed there in 2017 and 2019, respectively, while al-Aruri was still active (until his death in 2020), as will be outlined below.269

Saif al-`Adl, together with the now-deceased Abu Muhammad, remained in Iran,270 although Abu Muhammad reportedly traveled periodically to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.271 (It is not clear whether Saif was accorded the same privilege.) In a letter posted to a jihadi social media channel in 2017, al-Aruri addressed their status. After the prisoner exchange, he says, they “got out of prison. So the two are not detained as is understood and implied from this word, but they are prohibited from travelling until God can grant them an exit, for they move about and live their ordinary life except for permission to travel. [They are not] in prison or incommunicado or deprived of will or the like.”272 Thus, Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s apparent assassination did not take place in captivity but out on the streets of the Iranian capital.273

Current Involvement
How involved is Saif in the day-to-day running of al-Qaida?274 In March 2013, the aforementioned Sulayman Abu Ghayth, an al-Qaida operative imprisoned with them in Iran and now serving a life sentence in the United States,275 told the FBI that Saif and Abu Muhammad were “beaten men … primarily concerned with the day-to-day activities [and] welfare of their families in Iran … they have no larger intentions … to continue the jihad if / when they are released.”276 This assessment likely represented a smoke-screen, an attempt to direct attention away from these two revered figures. At any rate, whatever his precise status within Iran, it appears that Saif did not just “continue the jihad;” he positioned himself among its elder statesmen.

In keeping with his habitual modus operandi, Saif rarely addresses the public, or anyone outside al-Qa`ida, directly. In August 2015, around the same time as his “release,” he apparently posted a eulogy for a former protégé, Abu Khalid al-Suri, in which he recalled training recruits alongside al-Suri in the Jihad Wahl camp in Afghanistan.277

Evidence of Saif’s more practical influence came the following year in relation to a dispute between al-Qa`ida and its Syrian affiliate. As the author wrote in a previous article:

In July 2016, the al-Nusra Front proposed a rebranding exercise to dissociate itself from al-Qa`ida Central, in the hopes of attracting support from secular and international elements opposed to the Assad regime. According to the letter uploaded by Khalid al-Aruri (the same one mentioned above), al-Aruri and Abu al-Khair, al-Zawahiri’s senior representatives in the Levant, tentatively authorized the rebranding but submitted it for approval “on the same night” to Saif and Abu Mohammed, both of whom were in Iran. The two Egyptians rejected the rebranding but transmitted it onward to al-Zawahiri for a final decision. Abu al-Khair and Khalid al-Aruri then called a halt [to the rebranding] while al-Zawahiri considered the matter. (He, too, would eventually reject the rebranding, on the basis that it would not fool anybody and would just confuse potential recruits.)278

Although Zawahiri never did sign off, al-Nusra went ahead with the name-change regardless.279

Of this reported turn of events, several aspects are interesting:280

Firstly, the rebranding plan was reportedly submitted to the Egyptians “on the same night” it was decided upon, suggesting that al-Qa`ida commanders in Syria have been and likely continue to be in direct phone or online communication with their colleagues in Iran.

Secondly, opposition from Saif and Abu Muhammad was apparently enough to prompt al-Aruri and Abu Khair to suspend their own approval of the project. This indicates the standing that Saif still enjoys within the organization as a manager and decision-maker.

Thirdly, Saif and Abu Muhammad were able to transmit the rebranding plan (together, presumably, with an indication of their opposition to it) to al-Zawahiri, a detail that shows that, from Iran, they were in contact with the overall emir, possibly through a courier network similar to the one bin Ladin was using in the months before his death.

Fourthly, al-Aruri’s letter claims that Saif and Abu Muhammad were the decision-makers not only for Syria but worldwide: “And the leadership reads, hears and tracks all the fields, not just the field of al-Sham [the Levant].”281 Evidence of their part in decisions outside Syria is currently lacking, but given their influence within al-Qa`ida throughout its existence, al-Aruri’s assessment could well be correct.

Finally, while it might be supposed that the Egyptians’ presence in Iran would complicate their ability to make decisions for al-Qa`ida as a whole, that does not seem to have been the case, at least on this occasion. This suggests that Saif would not face significant obstacles in running the organization from Iran (provided, it may safely be presumed, that he does not move to attack Iranian interests directly).

That is not to say that the government of Iran would necessarily be content to allow the overall leader of al-Qaida to operate from Iranian soil. Such an arrangement might, indeed, also cause suspicion within the al-Qaida membership itself. Moreover, Iran has previously attempted to exert influence over al-Qa`ida’s actions by holding family members of bin Ladin and other senior commanders based elsewhere. The more likely outcome, should Saif succeed to the leadership, is that he would depart from Iran, leaving family members behind as collateral. As seen above, the same arrangement likely pertained with respect to Saif’s temporary departure from Iran in the months preceding bin Ladin’s death.

An image of Saif al-Adl as presented by a jihadi media outlet. The caption reads “Sheikhs of the Ummah” “Sheikhs Saif al-Adl.” The image was part of a poster series published by “al-Hijarah Media” called “Sheikhs of the Ummah” released in November 2020. The image appears to be a modified version of a passport photo of al-Adl previously published by media outlets.

In June 2018, the U.N. team responsible for monitoring sanctions seemed to confirm the essentials of al-Aruri’s account in a report to the Security Council based on member state intelligence:

Al-Qaida leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with Aiman al-Zawahiri and projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously. They have influenced events in the Syrian Arab Republic, countering the authority of Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani [leader of the al-Nusra Front] and causing formations, breakaways and mergers of various Al-Qaida-aligned groups in Idlib … Member States report that Aiman al-Zawahiri, partly through the agency of senior Al-Qaida leadership figures based in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Abu Muhammad Al-Masri and Sayf Al-Adl (QDi.001), has been able to exert influence on the situation in north-western Syrian Arab Republic.282

Less than a month after the Security Council made the 2018 report public, the U.S. State Department doubled the bounty for information on Saif and Abu Muhammad from $5 million to $10 million.283 The State Department did not offer an explanation for this decision, but one may safely conclude that the U.S. government still considers Saif a dangerous leader within al-Qa`ida. Indeed, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as much in January 2021.284

In August 2019, Saif apparently published another statement on the conflict in Syria. This time, he criticized certain salafi-jihadi groups for their alleged reliance on assistance from Turkey. These groups, he said, “must once again change the military theory to one that fits the situation.”285 It was a reminder of al-Qa`ida’s legendary ability to adapt—as well as of Saif’s status as a military strategist.

Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s death in August 2020, along with reports of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s illness or possible death, can only have bolstered Saif’s role within al-Qa`ida. As the U.N. monitoring team tracking the global jihadi terror threat reported to the Security Council in December 2020:

One Member State has confirmed the death of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah el Alfi, also known as Abu Mohamed al-Masri (QDi.019), in August, who was the deputy of Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri (QDi.006). There were also reports of the death of al-Zawahiri in October, although no Member State has been able to confirm such reports to the Monitoring Team. The importance of Mohammed Salahaldin Abd El Halim Zidane, also known as Sayf-Al Adl (QDi.001), previously assessed to be the third most senior leader of Al-Qaida, has likely increased.286

In January 2021, around one week before the inauguration of President Biden, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech that Saif was placing “a new emphasis on global operations and plotting attacks all across the world.”287 Given the timing, there may be reason to be skeptical about Pompeo’s motivation: the speech was provocatively entitled “The Iran-al-Qa’ida Axis,” and it is possible that the outgoing Trump administration intended in part to complicate any effort by its successor to rejoin the Iran nuclear accords.288 But it is by no means difficult to imagine that Saif, who has been with al-Qa`ida from the beginning and helped plan many of its most spectacular attacks, might seek to steer the organization back toward global terrorism.

Conclusion
With the exception of bin Ladin himself, it is difficult to think of anyone who played a more central role in all of al-Qaida’s formative events than Saif al-Adl. His history as a charter member of al-Qa`ida and loyal lieutenant to Usama bin Ladin would by itself be enough to accord him the respect of the group’s membership. Certainly, he is held in higher regard than al-Zawahiri, who almost 20 years on from the EIJ merger is still widely seen as an interloper.289

But inherited glory is by no means the only attribute that makes Saif dangerous. He is a seasoned military operative, with experience in both formal armed forces and militias. He has shown on multiple occasions, culminating in the 2001 defense of Kandahar, that he is a tenacious and inventive military commander. He has experience developing effective intelligence and security protocols. He was a leading planner in the East Africa and USS Cole bombings, al-Qa`ida’s two biggest pre-9/11 attacks. He has worked to develop valuable, long-standing personal connections among powerful groups from the Levant to Afghanistan.

Of no less importance is his longstanding relationship with the deceased founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As detailed above, it was Saif who gave al-Zarqawi his start as a terrorist leader, by persuading bin Ladin to give him the resources he needed to set up a training camp in Herat in 1999. Eventually, al-Zarqawi’s organization morphed into the Islamic State group that still operates today. Al-Zarqawi himself was killed in 2006, but Islamic State adherents still lionize him as their founder. A hagiographic 2005 biography of al-Zarqawi, attributed to Saif, certainly does not hurt his standing among Islamic State members, despite bin Ladin’s skepticism as to its authorship.290 At any rate, Saif has never publicly criticized the Islamic State—unlike al-Zawahiri, who feuded openly with its late leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.291 With both al-Baghdadi out of the way and so too possibly al-Zawahiri, Saif as emir would enjoy a rare opportunity to attract some former Islamic State members back into al-Qaida (although, to be fair, the group’s anti-Shi`a hardliners might be repulsed by Saif’s pragmatic attitude toward his Iranian hosts).

Saif’s expertise will continue to prove invaluable to al-Qa`ida, whatever his position in the organization or status within Iran. “With someone like Saif al-Adel,” the former jihadi Noman Benotman has warned, “You don’t even need him to be active himself. What he has in his head is enough.”292

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