European Eye on Radicalization
As a recent report at European Eye on Radicalization noted, most governments now believe that the Iran-based Sayf al-Adel has taken over the leadership of Al-Qaeda after the group’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed in July 2022 in Kabul, the capital of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This raises the question of what, if any, changes Al-Qaeda will undergo in its strategy under Sayf’s leadership, a question of concern for the security of all states.
Sayf’s Jihadi Career
To assess how Sayf might act as leader of Al-Qaeda, it is necessary to understand his career as a jihadist. Born Muhammad Saladin Zaydan in Egypt in the early 1960s—making him about sixty-years-old at the present time (Al-Zawahiri was seventy-one at the time of his demise)—Sayf joined the army in his early twenties, but was ejected from the military in the late 1980s because of his radical activities. Sayf then went to Afghanistan, at the time occupied by the Soviet Union. It was among the “Arab-Afghans” who had come to Afghanistan for jihad against the Communists that the nucleus of Al-Qaeda formed.
Sayf joined Al-Qaeda in 1989 and quickly ascended its ranks because of the skills he possessed: Sayf “is one of the most experienced professional soldiers in the worldwide jihadi movement”. After Al-Qaeda made its deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1991-92, Sayf would hone his skills even further in a training camp run by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In 1993, Sayf went with his and fellow Egyptian, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, to Somalia to attack the U.S. forces deployed there to alleviate the famine. Sayf became the effective deputy military leader of Al-Qaeda by the mid-1990s, having among his duties the personal security of Osama bin Laden, and was involved in the terrible mass-murder at the U.S. Embassies in East Africa in August 1998.
Sayf was informed of the 9/11 plot earlier than most, in April 2001, and would go on to have two further crucial roles with Al-Qaeda. Sayf acted for Al-Qaeda as a mentor to, and intermediary with, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian jihadist who founded what became the Islamic State (ISIS), and in December 2001 it was Sayf who took the lead in evacuating the senior ranks of Al-Qaeda’s military and religious councils to Iran, where they have been ever since.
Sayf quickly became an extension of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), becoming especially close to Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, which exports the Islamic Revolution, until Soleimani was killed in 2020. Iran’s government has often presented the Al-Qaeda operatives on its territory as being under “house arrest”. The reality is very different. From Iran, Sayf was able to help organise the bombings in Saudi Arabia in May 2003, and Soleimani had made it clear that Al-Qaeda was not only allowed to attack common enemies of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic using Iran as a base, but the IRGC would help Al-Qaeda do so.
Operating mainly in the shadows, Sayf has briefly emerged a few times over the years and the two most notable occasions were when he acted on Al-Qaeda Central’s behalf against dissention within the ranks. When Zarqawi began to go wayward, Sayf was among those who publicly reacted to it, and after Bin Laden’s death, when Al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, Al-Shabab, showed some hesitancy in giving its bay’a (oath of allegiance) to Al-Zawahiri, it was Sayf who moved in to cajole Al-Shabab into line—perhaps even killing the leader of the dissident faction.
From Iran, Sayf has helped guide Al-Qaeda’s operations around the world, notably in Syria since the rebellion broke out in 2011. It is notable that Sayf was offered a chance to leave Iran in 2015, and did not take it, continuing to operate freely from Iranian territory in managing Al-Qaeda’s global network.
Sayf’s rise to the very summit of Al-Qaeda over the last decade-and-a-half can be described as a Darwinian process. The U.S. killed Bin Laden in his hideout in 2011 and his son, Hamza, around 2019 in circumstances that are still not entirely clear. In August 2020, on the anniversary of the East African Embassy bombings, Sayf’s close friend, Abu Muhammad, was struck down on the streets of Tehran by Israel. Sayf’s status as last man standing should not be seen as chance. The key thing about Darwinism is that it is not random; the selection pressures weed out the weak and ensure the triumph of the most well-adapted. Sayf’s unswerving loyalty to Al-Qaeda Central, his decision to draw so close to the IRGC, running his operations out of Iran, where he is safe from U.S. drones, and to have evaded the Israelis—all of these speak to his capacities.
In terms of the threat an Al-Qaeda led by Sayf would pose, it can be said he was an opponent of the 9/11 attacks. On the other hand, so were most of Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. The attacks in the U.S. in 2001 resulted from a decision taken by Bin Laden and a small number of others led by Khaled Sheikh Muhammad. Sayf was not opposed to murdering civilians; he simply understood the strategic cost of 9/11 would be the loss of Al-Qaeda’s safe-haven.
Now that Al-Qaeda has been given its Taliban safe-haven back by the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, Sayf seems unlikely to risk it again with a direct attack on the U.S. homeland, but Al-Qaeda has moved away from such activities since around 2013, anyway. The Iranian support that is Sayf’s greatest ideological weakness—opening Al-Qaeda up to polemical attack from ISIS for being reliant on “Shi’ites”—is also his greatest operation strength, giving Al-Qaeda the support of the world’s lead state-sponsor of terrorism should it choose to conduct regional attacks against Western targets or allied Arab governments.
Whatever problems Sayf’s Iran connection give him, Sayf has the prestige of being from the “old guard”—he might not have been in Al-Qaeda at its founding, but he was there from very soon afterwards—and he has been involved in most of Al-Qaeda’s “spectacular” attacks. Sayf also clearly possessed skills, practical and political, that have kept him alive and contributing to the jihad for more than three decades. As one scholar noted, “Few operatives in Al-Qaeda Central elicit as much concern within the intelligence community as [Sayf].”