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Al Qaeda has chosen Egyptian Al Qaeda member Saif al-Adel as interim leader while it decides on a more permanent successor to Osama bin Laden, according to independent but unconfirmed reports. While Mr. Adel has long been a senior member of Al Qaeda, his appointment comes as a surprise to many. It may signal a rift in the organization, which many expected would now be led by Mr. bin Laden's longtime No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
CNN's Peter Bergen attributed his information to former Libyan militant Noman Benotman, who once had ties with Al Qaeda but is now an analyst with British think tank Quilliam Foundation. The Pakistani paper The News based its report on sources it said were in attendance at a recent Al Qaeda meeting when members voted on bin Laden's successor.
Mr. Zawahiri and Adel were both part of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Adel, like Zawahiri, is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, with rewards of up to $5 million and $25 million, respectively, being offered for information leading to their capture. Adel is wanted for involvement in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, and is also believed to have been involved in Somalia and Afghanistan – where he fought the Soviets in the 1980s as well as US-led NATO troops beginning in 2001.
He reportedly fled to Iran early in the war, however, and only recently resurfaced with the publication of five letters that "directly [challenge] the claims to the al-Qa’ida legacy made by the more familiar faces of the post-9/11 al-Qa’ida organization – Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi in particular," reported Jihadica.com, the online clearinghouse of militant literature, in February.
According to Mr. Benotman, Adel was chosen as an interim leader because members have been clamoring for a formal successor to bin Laden but Al Qaeda is not ready to choose a permanent leader. Several leaders currently in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region made the decision, rather than the full shura council, because Al Qaeda was unable to convene the complete council.
The News reports that a man named Mohammed Mustafa Yamni is likely to be named Al Qaeda's chief once the full council can be convened. Zawahiri will remain in charge of Al Qaeda's military arm and will take over monitoring Al Qaeda's international contacts, Adel's previous responsibility, the paper said.
If it's true that Adel has been chosen over Zawahiri, it would be a major demotion for the more senior Egyptian militant and could signal a "major split within militant ranks," the Guardian reports. The leaders of Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Yemen have already thrown their support behind Zawahiri and may not accept Adel as a leader, even an interim one.
"[Zawahiri] is the right person to take over. All wings of al-Qaida would approve of him and all Jihadist movements trust him greatly," Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismail, a Yemeni cleric linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was quoted as saying.
The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Mr. Zawahiri has been a divisive figure in Al Qaeda who lacks the "charisma" to lead the organization.
... Mr. Zawahiri, a surgeon and the scion of an upper-class Egyptian family, strikes many as haughty and droning with little of the ability Mr. bin Laden had to inspire. Irascible, he is given to fueling obscure ideological conflicts within jihadi ranks; Al Qaeda itself reportedly split into two factions before bin Laden’s death, with Zawahiri in charge of the spinoff, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
Three decades ago, a member of Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad group recognized his lack of leadership, reportedly telling him, “No matter what group you belong to, you cannot be its leader.”
According to Reuters, Adel is also suspected of setting up Al Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. US officials believe Adel fled to Iran after 9/11 and was put in Iranian custody, but was freed a year ago and moved to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
A report by the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel a year ago said Adel had been under house arrest for nine years in Iran, and called his release "possibly the biggest break" Al Qaeda had had in a decade.
Spiegel, which is known for its investigative reporting, quoted Australian scholar Leah Farrall, who was writing her doctoral dissertation on Al Qaeda's command structures, as saying: "Not only would Saif al-Adel's return to the field greatly bolster al-Qaida's operational capability, and bring a rigour to its external operations, but his longstanding connections to groups whose relations with al-Qaida have been subject to tension could herald a new era in operational cooperation for attacks against the West."
CNN reports that Adel's Egyptian roots could be problematic for some members because some in Al Qaeda insist that the group's leader must come from the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam's two holiest sites are located. Bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia. Benotman speculated that Adel's appointment might be a way for Al Qaeda leadership to test the waters and see if the group's full membership would accept the leadership of the previously expected successor, Zawahiri, who is also Egyptian.