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Reports: Caretaker Leader Takes Over al-Qaida

None of bin Laden’s sons wants to succeed their father, Pakistani newspaper says

Image: Al-Qaida members
Top row, from left: Ali Saeed Bin Ali al-Hooriyeh, Saif Al-Adel, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso. Bottom row, from left: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Adam Yahiye Gadahn. (AP, Reuters, FBI handout hile photos)

May 18, 2011

LONDON — A veteran Egyptian militant has become the new acting leader of al-Qaida, according to an expert and media reports.

A leading specialist on al-Qaida said on Tuesday that Saif al-Adel was acting as an interim operational leader pending the expected appointment of deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri as successor to Osama bin Laden.

Noman Benotman, a former associate of bin Laden and now an analyst with Britain’s Quilliam Foundation think tank, told Reuters that the organization was collecting pledges of loyalty to Zawahiri.

The Al-Jazeera news network reported that while Adel was named interim leader, another man, Mustafa al-Yemeni, would direct operations. …

The News newspaper in Pakistan said none of bin Laden’s sons “has shown willingness to join any post” in al-Qaida.

U.S. prosecutors say Adel is one of al-Qaida’s leading military chiefs, and helped to plan the bomb attacks against the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and set up training camps for the organization in Sudan and Afghanistan in the 1990s. …

Benotman, who knew Adel personally when both were active as militants in Afghanistan, said Adel “already occupied a role akin to chief of staff” even before bin Laden’s death in a U.S. raid in Pakistan on May 2.

Adel [who was close to Zawahiri] was believed to have fled to Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on the United States, and they were subsequently held under a form of house arrest there, according to some media reports. …

Benotman, who is a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which tried and failed to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the 1990s, said it was taking time to obtain pledges of loyalty to Zawahri from the far flung affiliates and branches of al-Qaida.

Full story


Finding al-Qaida’s next leader (MSNBC, May 5, 2011) — NBC News Investigative Producer Bob Windrem talks about the growing speculation over who will replace Osama bin Laden. (01:55)


6/29/2011 Update: Related report

Mistaken ID in FBI Most-Wanted Profile?

An FBI most-wanted poster for Saif Al-Adel. (Image: FBI via AP)

By Paisley Dodds

June 29, 2011

LONDON — The FBI’s most-wanted list features a dated black-and-white photograph for the man wanted in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Saif al-Adel, reads the glaring red banner, alias Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi.

But intelligence officials and people who say they know al-Adel and Makkawi tell The Associated Press that they are two different men.

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, AP reporters around the globe began hunting for fresh details on al-Adel — al-Qaida’s so-called third man because of his strategic military experience. Traversing a reporting trail that spanned from Europe to Egypt and from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, a new picture started to emerge about the al-Adel investigation: that the FBI’s manhunt dragged in the name of a one-time jihadist turned vocal al-Qaida critic who now can’t get himself off the wanted list.

Intelligence officials from five countries and a handful of sources who say they knew the men personally over the years confirmed to the AP that al-Adel and Makkawi were two distinct people. Some of those sources came forward with two photographs that show two different men.

“That is certainly not Makkawi,” Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who represented Makkawi in Egypt, told the AP after looking at the FBI’s photo of al-Adel.

In emails seen by the AP, a man who identifies himself as Makkawi says he has tried several times to clear his name but to no avail. …

The description of al-Adel highlights the questionable intelligence that often goes into profiles of top suspects by the world’s intelligence services.

Many of the profiles are based on information obtained from captives under duress or worse. Some bits come from unreliable sources. Other tips are never verified.

On the surface, some may ask why the world should care — one man is a jihadist with a $5 million bounty on his head; the other a former jihadist turned al-Qaida critic. But the case raises a number of important questions about the accuracy of FBI profiles and how stale or misleading intelligence could hamper searches. …

It is unclear exactly how Makkawi’s life has been affected. The former Egyptian army officer who worked in a counterterrorism unit has yet to come forward and did not respond to several emails sent by the AP.

Still, in May a man who identified himself as Makkawi sent a handful of emails to journalists and commentators, saying he had been mistaken for al-Adel. In one email to the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, which publishes an English edition in London, he claimed he was a colonel in the Egyptian army, has long been an opponent of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups and has been mistaken for al-Adel ever since settling down in Pakistan. …

It is easy enough to understand how the FBI might have thought Makkawi was simply an alias for al-Adel.

A tip may have come from a detainee at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, who told investigators he met with a “Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, aka (al-Adel),” according to secret documents released by WikiLeaks. Others who say they know both men say al-Adel might intentionally be using Makkawi’s name as revenge for Makkawi’s pointed criticism of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups.

But photographs provided to the AP by people who say they knew both al-Adel and Makkawi show two different men. The FBI’s photo of al-Adel shows a slender man with thin hair, full lips and delicate features; a picture of Makkawi — which does not appear on the FBI poster — shows a stout man with a round face, bulbous nose and thick, curly hair.

Image: Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi
This undated image shows the true Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, according to Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida and now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation. (Image credit: AP)

Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida and now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, says he has met both al-Adel and Makkawi.

Describing Makkawi as “well-educated, short-fused and unpredictable,” Benotman said the last time he saw Makkawi was in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, around 1994.

Benotman said the last time he saw al-Adel was in 2000 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He said he was impressed with his knowledge of military strategy and country profiles.

“The big difference between them is that Makkawi hates al-Qaida, hates these jihadist groups, and in particular hates the Egyptian jihadist groups where Zawahiri came from,” said Benotman, referring to the Egyptian eye doctor who has succeeded bin Laden as head of the terror network.

Both al-Adel and Makkawi are Egyptian, reportedly served in the Egyptian army and were accused of links to jihadist groups.

But Makkawi reportedly severed all ties with extremist groups after growing disillusioned with their goals and strategies. …

El-Zayat, Makkawi’s lawyer in the 1987 case, also told the AP the men were two different people and that al-Adel’s real name is Mohammed Salah Zidan. …

Yasser el-Siri, founder of the Islamic Marsad Center in London — a research center for Islamic and jihadist affairs — said he met Makkawi in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca between 1989 and 1990.

He also offered some key differences in the men’s lives.

Al-Adel was born in the 1960s, is tall, comes from the Nile Delta and married the daughter of a well-known Egyptian journalist-turned-jihadist, Abouel Walid, who was editor-in-chief of The Islamic Emirate magazine, an extremist publication, el-Siri said. The editor was one of an early generation of jihadists who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Western intelligence officials believe al-Adel is living in Iran but travels frequently to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was a reservist in the Egyptian army.

Makkawi, who was born in the 1950s, also comes from the Nile Delta but had a Saudi father and Egyptian mother. He graduated from military college in 1972, became a lieutenant and then joined the special forces. He is reportedly short compared al-Adel.

Makkawi joined jihadist groups in Afghanistan but then criticized them for their poor tactics and planning, describing their battles as “the war of the goats.”

It is unclear when al-Adel formally joined al-Qaida or an affiliate, but he is thought to be one of the group’s most experienced military strategists. Prior to the U.S. Embassy bombings, he allegedly had a hand in operations against U.S. forces who entered Somalia in 1993 in an attempt to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and some of his top lieutenants. In the end, 18 U.S. troops died in the operation. …

Although the FBI says it has only listed Makkawi as one of al-Adel’s aliases — not necessarily mistaken him for al-Adel — it is not entirely clear how someone gets off the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list, even if the name is just the alias, not the face, on the poster. …

Full story


6/15/2011 Update

Young Somali Soldier: I Killed Top al-Qaida Operative

22-year-old describes shootout that led to death of alleged mastermind of U.S. embassy bombings

Image: Men view body of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed
This photo taken June 8 , 2011 shows local men viewing the bodies of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, front right, and another unidentified man. (Photo credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP)

By Malkhadir M. Muhumed

June 14, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya — The black Toyota SUV pulled up to the security checkpoint in Mogadishu. It was night, and 22-year-old Somali soldier Abdi Hassan recalls that he ordered the driver to switch the headlights off and the interior lights on.

“They are the elders,” said the driver, referring to the car’s occupants with an honorific name for top leaders of al-Shabab, Somalia’s most dangerous militant group. …

And thus a routine stop at a checkpoint in Somalia’s capital turned into a shootout resulting in the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people. It was described in an exclusive interview on Monday with The Associated Press by Hassan, marking the first time details have emerged of a killing that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a “significant blow to al-Qaida, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa.” …

The death of Mohammed — a man who topped the FBI’s most wanted list for planning the Aug. 7, 1998, U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — was the third major strike in six weeks against al-Qaida. The embassy attacks killed 224 people, mostly Kenyans, though also 12 Americans.

Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2 at his home in Pakistan. Just a month later, Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaida leader sought in the 2008 Mumbai siege and rumored to be a longshot choice to succeed bin Laden, was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan. [links added]

Full story


6/16/2011 Update

Ayman al-Zawahri Succeeds Osama bin Laden as al-Qaida Leader

Bespectacled doctor from prominent Egyptian family pioneered the use of suicide bombings; wife, 2 kids were killed by U.S. airstrike

Image: Ayman al-Zawahri
Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen in a still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website on June 8, 2011. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The Associated Press, Reuters, and NBC News via
June 16, 2011

Al-Qaida’s longtime No. 2 leader, a doctor from a prominent Egyptian family who worked with Osama bin Laden for decades, has succeeded the slain terrorist as head of the global network, the group said Thursday.

The brains [link added] behind much of al-Qaida’s strategy, Ayman al-Zawahri vowed this month to press ahead with the group’s campaign against the United States and its allies.

“The general leadership of al-Qaida group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr. Ayman Zawahri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group,” the Islamist website Ansar al-Mujahedeen (Followers of the Holy Warriors) said in a statement. …

The bespectacled al-Zawahri had been seen as bin Laden’s most likely successor after the man held responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. was shot dead by U.S. commandos in Pakistan on May 2 [link added].

His whereabouts are unknown, although he has long been thought to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan [link added]. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction. …

Al-Zawahri, who turns 60 on Sunday, has long brought ideological fire, tactics and organizational skills to al-Qaida [link added]. The surgeon by training was first behind the use of the suicide bombings and independent terror cells that have become the network’s trademarks.

He has appeared in dozens of videos and audio tapes in recent years, increasingly becoming the face of al-Qaida as bin Laden kept a lower profile. …

U.S. intelligence officials have said that some al-Qaida members find al-Zawahri to be a controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden’s appeal [link added].

“Bin Laden was regarded by his militant followers as a very charismatic leader,” Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, told [link added]. However, al-Zawahri was seen as “more of a strategist” who helped al-Qaida develop expertise in urban terrorism. …

Former U.S. intelligence officer Robert Ayers told Reuters that al-Zawahri was “a man lacking in charisma, a pale shadow of bin Laden.”

“He’s a grey bureaucrat, not a leader who can energize and rally the troops. The only thing his promotion will accomplish is to elevate his priority as a target for the U.S.”

Al-Zawahri faces significant challenges in promoting al-Qaida’s agenda following uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa — movements that were driven by a desire for democracy rather than a religious state.

In videotaped eulogy released earlier this month, al-Zawahri warned that America still faces an international community of Muslims that seek to destroy it. [link added]

Al-Zawahri is the son of an upper middle class Egyptian family of doctors and scholars. His father was a pharmacology professor at Cairo University’s medical school and his grandfather was the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, a premier center of religious study.

At the age of 15, he founded his first underground cell of high school students to oppose the Egyptian government. He continued his militant activities while earning his medical degree, later merging his cell with other militants to form Islamic Jihad.

Al-Zawahri served three years in an Egyptian prison before heading to Afghanistan in 1984 to fight the Soviets, where he linked up with bin Laden. Al-Zawahri later followed bin Laden to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan, where they found a haven under the radical Taliban regime.

Soon after came the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, followed by the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen [link added], an attack al-Zawahri is believed to have helped organize.

In a 2001 treatise, he set down the long-term strategy for the jihadi movement — to inflict “as many casualties as possible” on the Americans.

“Pursuing the Americans and Jews is not an impossible task,” he wrote. “Killing them is not impossible, whether by a bullet, a knife stab, a bomb or a strike with an iron bar.”

Al-Zawahri’s hatred for Americans has also become deeply personal: His wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.

Al-Zawahri has worked in the years since to rebuild the organization’s leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border. Al-Qaida has inspired or had a direct hand in attacks in North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London.

The CIA came close to capturing him in 2003 and killing him in 2004 — both times in Pakistan. In December 2009, they thought they were again close only to be tricked by a double agent who blew himself up, killing seven agency employees and wounding six more in Khost, Afghanistan. …

Full story


Related reports on this site

Top al-Qaida Commander Killed (June 5, 2011)

First CIA Casualties in al-Qaida’s War on U.S. Avenged (May 29, 2011)

Al-Qaida Leadership Roles (May 4, 2011)

Zawahiri Psychological Profile (May 3, 2011)

Osama bin Laden Dead (May 1, 2011)

Al-Qaida’s Third in Command Assassinated (June 2, 2010)

CIA Zawahiri Team Decimated (Jan. 4, 2010)

Zawahiri Lashes Out At Obama (June 3, 2009)

Zawahiri Blames U.S. Wars for Economic Crisis (Nov. 28, 2008)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — May 18, 2010

Iraq-Afghanistan Casualties

One year ago today, I provided my weekly report of U.S. military deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Army National Guard Sgt. Denis D. Kisseloff, 45, Saint Charles, Mo., died May 14, 2010 at Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. He was assigned to the 1141st Engineer Company, Missouri National Guard, Kansas City, Mo., and had previously served in Iraq.

Sgt. Kisseloff’s military service began with the Marine Corps in 1981, followed by some time in the Marine Corps Reserves until 1988. He joined the National Guard in April 2007.

Survivors include his parents, Michael and Mila; and his two young children, Serena and Alexandr, whose mother had died about two years earlier after an illness. Denis was a doting father who lived simply and doled out “big bear hugs,” according to his sister, Marie Fe Ariss.


FROM THE ARCHIVES: Two Years Ago — May 18, 2009

Update: Iraq War Drags On


Two years ago today, on May 18, 2009, I reported the latest U.S. military deaths and security incidents in Iraq, along with the latest headlines from the Iraq and AfPak wars.

5 Responses to “Osama bin Laden’s Successor, Interim Operational Leader Named”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » First CIA Casualties in al-Qaida’s War on U.S. Avenged Says:

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  2. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Top al-Qaida Commander Killed Says:

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  3. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Eulogy for bin Laden Says:

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    […] Osama bin Laden’s Successor, Interim Operational Leader Named (May 18, 2011) […]

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