Al Qaida's new military leader operates from Iran

Special to World
Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The following is excerpted from the "Dossier" feature in the current edition of

A relatively junior member of Al Qaida has risen rapidly over the last year to become it military leader.

Western intelligence sources said Saif Al Adel has revived Al Qaida with new methods, operations and relationships with Islamic terrorist networks throughout the world. Adel is believed to have directed the suicide bombings against Western compounds in Riyad and the strikes in Casablanca earlier this month.

Representing the second generation of Al Qaida, Adel is believed to have formally taken over as military commander, replacing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Adel has been granted safe haven in Iran while Osama Bin Laden remains on the run.

High on the FBI list of most-wanted terrorists, Adel has a $25 million price on his head. The Egyptian national represents the second generation of Al Qaida. Since October 2001, the organization has lacked a unified command structure and Bin Laden and his chief aides are no longer regarded as key forces in the organization.

Since March, Adel is believed to have formally taken over as Al Qaida's military commander, replacing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured in Pakistan two months ago. Mohammed was not regarded as being effective after 9/11 and his big mouth was said to have disrupted at least one major Al Qaida attack.

Under Adel's direction, secrecy is the key. Unlike Mohammed, Adel maintains a low profile, ensures compartmentalization and is a master at deception.

Believed to be just as dangerous as Mohammed, Adel's expertise is in explosives. He was regarded as a key operative in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Adel has also downsized Al Qaida. Today, there is virtually nobody outside of Afghanistan who can be identified as an Al Qaida operative.

Instead, only a small number of Al Qaida planners deal with a range of Islamic terrorist subcontractors. Al Qaida provides a down payment for approved operations. The major part of the payment depends on the success of the terrorist attack.

That's how Al Qaida operates in Asia and Africa. A few dollars can buy a lot of blood in those countries and Al Qaida has recruited a number of Islamic groups for terrorist operations.

Unlike the old days, today Al Qaida is split. The Afghan faction sends messages of support and encouragement to Islamic followers while the Iranian wing plans attacks and sends money to operatives.

Except for Bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and a few other members, the top Al Qaida operatives have been wiped out; Mohammed Atef is dead and Mohammed has been captured.

The Iran faction, however, has been boosted by the war in Iraq. Senior Al Qaida operatives financed by Saddam Hussein escaped to Iran and Syria during the first 10 days of the war. Among them was Abu Musab Zarqawi who had represented Al Qaida in northern Iraq over the last few years.

Except for Bin Laden, the top Al Qaida leadership has been wiped out; Mohammed Atef (left) is dead and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (right) has been captured.
Adel doesn't act alone. His authority derives from Bin Laden's son Saad, regarded as heir to the leadership of Al Qaida. Unlike his father, Saad has little sentiment toward the Saudi royal family, particularly Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz.

Adel now runs the show from the Afghan-Iranian border. He consults with leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Intelligence Ministry for instructions. When things get hot, Adel occasionally slips back into Afghanistan for a few weeks.

Iran's role in the newly-revived Al Qaida was long misunderstood by the United States and the Western allies. The CIA was aware that at least 500 Al Qaida members escaped from Afghanistan to Iran. But Iran had repeatedly assured Washington that most of the members had either been expelled or placed under heavy restrictions.

Western intelligence sources now say that Iran was being only slightly truthful. Today, they are convinced that elements of the Iranian ruling clergy sought to use elements of Al Qaida and Taliban to promote Iranian influence in Afghanistan.

Adel's decision to approve the attacks in Saudi Arabia was not an easy one. Factions within Al Qaida have been debating such a move for years, intelligence sources said. But since the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the proponents convinced Bin Laden that the attacks would be understood by the vast majority of Wahabi clerics and seminary students who are fed up with the Saudi monarchy and its reliance on the United States.

The United States is in a quandary. On one hand, Iran quietly cooperated in the U.S. victory against neighboring Iraq. On the other hand, Iran has co-opted a major part of Al Qaida and Teheran continues to earn its reputation as the world's biggest sponsor of terrorism.

The State Department has urged Iran to surrender or expel Adel and his aides. Iran pleaded ignorance.

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