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Profile: Saif al Adel of al Qaeda

Ryan Zoellner
Saif al Adel photos
Header of FBI wanted poster with three photos of Saif al Adel

After months of ambiguity over al Qaeda’s leadership, Saif al Adel became its third emir, the United Nations reported in February 2023. He succeeded Osama bin Laden, the Saudi founder who was killed during a U.S. ground raid in May 2011, and Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who died in a U.S. drone strike in July 2022. Adel’s leadership style has differed from his predecessors. Bin Laden was known as a charismatic philosopher-poet, while Zawahiri specialized in strategy and propaganda. Adel was widely viewed as a shrewd and seasoned military tactician, who rose quickly through al Qaeda’s ranks. He was initially an instructor on explosives, then led bin Laden’s personal security team, and more recently directed al Qaeda military operations.  In 2000, the United States offered a reward of $5 million for information leading to his apprehension or conviction. The reward was increased to $10 million in 2018.

Adel has far more military experience than either of his predecessors. Before joining al Qaeda, he served in the Egyptian Army, where he trained on explosives and parachutes in the 1980s. Little is known about those years, when his identity was confused with another Egyptian military officer who also became a jihadi. Adel quit the military in 1987. He left Egypt, faked his own death, and joined Makhtab al Khidmat, a mujahideen group fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He joined al Qaeda shortly after it was created in 1988.

Adel was initially an instructor on explosives. But he rose quickly to become a close advisor to bin Laden. In the 1990s, he advised bin Laden on operations and al Qaeda’s global outreach to develop a network of affiliates. He built relations with jihadist cells and reportedly provided training for affiliated militias in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen to help them challenge those governments. “The banner of Islam and genuine leadership of the nation have been absent for more than 100 years,” he later explained. Many Arab leaders had become “collaborators” manipulated by foreign powers. “Sometimes they raised secular or international banners,” he wrote. “When we raise the clear banner of Islam, the falseness of all other banners will become obvious.” He plotted major al Qaeda operations abroad, including:

  • The Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which was infamous for the Black Hawk Down incident when Somali insurgents shot down two U.S. helicopters that were supporting humanitarian operations; 18 Americans and 13 U.N. personnel were killed.
  • The twin suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed 12 Americans and more than 200 others, and injured 4,500.
  • The Battle of Kandahar in 2001, which was al Qaeda’s first major military confrontation with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  
  • Three suicide bombings in May 2003 at residential compounds for Americans and other westerners in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; 39 were killed and hundreds were injured.

Adel initially opposed the 9/11 attacks on tactical grounds and feared that any U.S. response would devastate the jihadi movement. He ultimately accepted bin Laden’s assignment to develop contingency plans in case the U.S. retaliated. After al Qaeda’s defeat in Afghanistan in 2001, Adel fled to Pakistan, then to Iran. He was put under virtual house arrest from 2003 to 2015. Restrictions on his movements were gradually relaxed. “Coordination was made with sincere individuals who were hostile to the Americans and the Israelis. It was not made with the Iranian government,” he claimed in 2005. Since 2010, he has reportedly been allowed to make trips to Pakistan to meet with al Qaeda.  

Adel has faced two major challenges as al Qaeda’s new emir. He inherited a more decentralized iteration of al Qaeda. By 2023, many branches had effectively become far-flung franchises with local objectives not fully coordinated with al Qaeda core in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both factors limited the scope of Adel’s control and impact as well as his ability to communicate with affiliates.

His residence in predominantly Shiite Iran was also a liability for the Sunni jihadist group. Iran and al Qaeda have been unnatural bedfellows, both strategically and ideologically. “Offering safe haven to al Qaeda is just another example of Iran’s wide-ranging support for terrorism, its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in February 2023. Iran has had far more leverage over al Qaeda than Afghanistan or Pakistan, which hosted al Qaeda in the 1990s and early 2000s and again after 2021.

Al Qaeda did not formally announce its new leader, possibly under pressure from Iran, or for security concerns, or to avoid endangering future access to Afghanistan. The Taliban, which had promised the United States that al Qaeda would not be allowed to return to Afghanistan, was embarrassed when U.S. forces tracked Zawahiri to Kabul and killed him in a drone strike. The following are al Qaeda branches active in 2023:

Saif al Adel - Timeline of Major Events  

April 11, 1960 or 1963 – Saif al Adel, the nom de guerre of Mohammed Salahuddin Zeidan, was born in Shibin in al Kom, the capital of Egypt’s Monufia governate, about 40 miles northwest of Cairo.   

Late 1970’s – Adel studied business at Shibin al Kom University after graduating high school.

Early 1980’s – Adel enlisted in the Egyptian army. He trained on parachutes and explosives. In the military, Zeidan was  reportedly attracted to militant jihadism. “God guided me to comprehend pure Islam in the early 1980s,” he later wrote.

Mid-1980s – Adel rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces by the mid-1980s. Surreptitiously, he built contacts with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a radical Islamist group founded by Ayman al Zawahiri, who was the second leader of al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden. 

Zawahiri and bin Laden
Former al Qaeda leaders Ayman al Zawahiri (left) and Osama bin Laden (right)

May 6, 1987 – Adel was detained along with thousands of Egyptian Islamic Jihad members. They were charged with plotting against the government. He was released due to lack of evidence and demoted in the army. He subsequently left the Islamist movement because its excessive “enthusiasm” had resulted in “recklessness,” he charged. Its membership “lacked the necessary expertise, a short-term and long-term plan in advance, and a vision to employ the nation's human resources at the highest level.” 

Late 1987 – Adel went to Saudi Arabia in search of employment, according to his brother. During this time, many Egyptians sought better opportunities in the oil-rich kingdom and were radicalized along the way. On a pilgrimage, he reportedly met Bin Laden. 

Late 1988 – Adel’s family in Egypt was informed that he had been killed in an accident in Saudi Arabia. Adel had faked his death and left Saudi to join the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion. He initially joined Maktab al Khidmat (“Services Bureau”), a precursor to al Qaeda. During this transition, he changed his name to Saif al Adel (or “sword of justice”) at this time. 

Early 1989 – Adel joined as an early member of al Qaeda, founded by Osama Bin Laden in March 1988 as a professional force committed to a radical interpretation of Sunni Islam and eventual creation of an Islamic state.   

March 1989 – Adel reportedly fought in the battle of Jalalabad, the first confrontation between a coalition of mujahideen (including al Qaeda) and the Soviet-backed Afghan government shortly after Soviet withdrawal. The battle was a crushing defeat for the mujahideen.  

1991 – Adel was reportedly promoted by bin Laden to be chief of al Qaeda’s Faruq training camp, where he supervised education in explosives and intelligence.  

Early 1992 – Bin Laden decided to begin moving operations to Sudan where the Islamist government of Omar al Bashir promised to improve al Qaeda’s reach and recruiting capabilities. Adel helped with the transition, while still based in Pakistan.  

Late 1992 – Adel pushed al Qaeda to go global. “We are going to move the jihad to other parts of the world,” he reportedly told a Saudi militant training in Afghanistan. This reflected the group’s shifting objectives and Adel’s growing influence.   

January 1993 – Adel sent representatives to explore the potential for al Qaeda training camps in Somalia.

Al Shabaab Fighter Speaking
Al Shabab fighter in Somalia

September 1993 – Adel went to Somalia to help establish connections to local militants and offer instruction in their training camps. He began referring to himself as Omar al Sumali, or “Omar the Somalian.”    

October 3, 1993 – Adel reportedly participated in the Battle of Mogadishu, in which local Islamist forces shot down three American Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 Americans and wounding dozens. Within al Qaeda, the “Black Hawk Down” incident was seen as a major achievement in al Qaeda’s war against the West. Many of the Somali combatants had been trained by Adel.  

Mid-1990s – Adel went to Lebanon for training from Hezbollah on terrorism tactics after bin Laden negotiated an agreement with Iran to collaborate. The first sessions took place in the fall of 1993. The tenuous relationship between al Qaeda, a Sunni movement, and predominantly Shiite Iran lasted for a few years despite their deep theological differences. 

1996 – Adel went to Yemen to explore new connections for al Qaeda, as bin Laden shifted focus away from Somalia. The al Qaeda franchise grew to become a major force in Yemen by the mid-2000s.

May 1996 – Under U.S. pressure, Sudan expelled al Qaeda. Bin Laden and his inner circle returned to Afghanistan. “We pledged to coordinate with the brothers of the Taliban to avoid any obstacles in the future,” Adel later wrote. He was promoted to chief of bin Laden’s personal security force, known as the Black Guards.

August 1998 – Adel adapted his earlier training in Lebanon to plot the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed hundreds, including twelve Americans. The twin bombings were modeled on Hezbollah’s simultaneous bombings of the U.S. Marine and French peacekeeper barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Search and rescue at U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya
Search and rescue efforts after the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998

Late 1998 – Adel was promoted to chief of al Qaeda’s “general security portfolio” following the success of his plots in East Africa.

Mid-1999 – Adel held meetings with Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Afghanistan. Adel convinced bin Laden to financially support Zarqawi’s jihadist training camps in Afghanistan, despite Zarqawi’s questionable allegiance to bin Laden. Zarqawi later founded the Iraqi franchise of al Qaeda that would morph into the Islamic State. Adel wrote a biography of Zarqawi in 2005. 

April 2001 – Adel was informed of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s proposal for the 9/11 attacks. Adel initially opposed the mission on tactical grounds; he argued that an attack on the American homeland would prompt a devastating U.S. response. However, he ultimately conceded and developed contingency plans for the aftermath. Adel later wrote that the main objective was to “deal a strike to the head of the snake at home to smash its arrogance,” a mission “partially achieved.” 

Fall 2001 – Adel became al Qaeda’s senior military leader during the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Adel led al Qaeda defenses in the Battle of Kandahar, an early U.S.-backed operation against al Qaeda strongholds. Al Qaeda was defeated in December and Adel fled to the mountains of Waziristan, Pakistan. 

Early 2002– Adel fled to Iran after Pakistan launched a crackdown and round-up of al Qaeda operatives. “Iran became a safe passage for the fraternal brothers after the Pakistani authorities began to tighten the noose around our movement,” he later wrote. Adel remained in Iran. 

March 2003 – From Iran, Adel authorized an al Qaeda terror campaign against Western targets in Saudi Arabia in May 2003.

April 2003 – Adel and two other al Qaeda operatives were detained for some 20 months. He was later put on virtual house arrest with his family at military compounds. 

2003 to 2010 – Al Qaeda pressured Iran to release Adel from house arrest. 

May 12, 2003 – In a plot designed by Adel, suicide bombers ran explosive-laden vehicles into three residential compounds used by Americans in Riyadh. The U.S. State Department had informed Iran about the al Qaeda plot orchestrated within its borders, but Tehran did not take any action to stop the attacks. 

Fall 2010 – Adel was reportedly granted temporary freedom to travel to Pakistan as part of a prisoner exchange between Iran and al Qaeda. Adel’s family was forced to stay in Iran. 

May 2011 – Bin Laden was assassinated during a U.S. raid in Pakistan. Even though he remained in Iran, Adel was appointed interim leader of al Qaeda operations. In June, Ayman al Zawahiri—an Egyptian who  had been long-time rival of Adel in al Qaeda—became the new emir. 

AQAP Fighters Speaking
AQAP fighters in Yemen

September 2015 – Adel was released from house arrest in Iran as one of the conditions for al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula to orchestrate the release an Iranian diplomat captured in Yemen. Adel became more visible on social media. 

February 2023 – The U.N. reported that Adel had become the acting emir of al Qaeda after the death of Zawahiri in July 2022. 

Saif al Adel - Quotes on Jihad

“What is our role as Muslims? The Almighty said: ‘And fight them so that there is no sedition, and the religion is entirely God.’ He also said: ‘Fight them. God will punish them at your hands, and disgrace them, and give you victory over them, and heal the hearts of a believing people.’ And the Almighty said: ‘When the sacred months have passed, then kill the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every ambush.’”

– “Manual on Kidnapping” in 2000

JNIM Fighters on Motorcycles
JNIM fighters on motorcycles

“The sweet smell of martyrdom, along with their captivating smiles, lit the fire of competition to become martyrs and be in the presence of God. Many times I had to ask the leaders of the groups to restrain the fervor of the youngsters and not let them chase the enemy outside the realm of the set plan.”

– “In the Shadow of the Lances” (advice to al Qaeda of Iraq) in 2003

 “The banner of Islam and a genuine leadership of the nation have been absent for more than 100 years. The absence of the banner scattered the nation's strength and capabilities and undermined it in front of its enemy. Leaders who isolated themselves for confrontation were created by the enemy. They were traitors whom the enemy manipulated in their favor to achieve their objectives. These collaborators raised global pan-Arab banners at times to deceive and undermine the nation. Sometimes they raised secular or international banners. When we raise the clear banner of Islam--the banner of there is no deity but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God--the falseness of all other banners will become obvious.”

Biography of Zarqawi in 2005

On the United States

“The prejudice and arrogance of the United States dominated its psychological makeup, which fueled its injustice to the extent that it looked down on other nations and people. Our main objective, therefore, was to deal a strike to the head of the snake at home to smash its arrogance. This objective was partially achieved, thank God.”

Biography of Zarqawi in 2005

“Victory over the United States is very possible--and easy beyond the imagination of many. It has several components; the most important is the elimination of the hypocritical forces fighting on behalf of the American soldier. This group is weak militarily, shaken psychologically. It is mercenary, without any cause.”

– "In the Shadow of the Lances" in 2003 

“The American soldier is not fit for combat. This is the truth that the leaders of the Pentagon know, as much as we and everyone who was engaged with them know. The Hollywood promotions will not succeed in the real battlefield. Therefore, the American commanders tend to use the air forces and missile bombardment to vacate the ground from any resistance, paving the way for the advance of the American phonies.”

– "In the Shadow of the Lances" in 2003

AQIM Fighters
AQIM fighters in Mali

“The Americans will commit strategic mistakes by adhering to the foolish Israeli policy. Therefore, the current available circumstances and developments that might take place in the region will provide an opportunity to establish an integrated Islamic army that is capable of achieving consecutive victories that will win it high credibility.”

– Biography of Zarqawi, 2005  

On Bin Laden and the aftermath of 9/11

“He [bin Laden] pushes you relentlessly and without consideration as if he does not comprehend current events. To absolve my conscience before Allah, I say today that we must completely halt all external actions until we sit down and consider the disaster we caused… The east Asia, Europe, America, horn of Africa, Yemen, Gulf, and Morocco groups have fallen, and Pakistan has almost been drowned in one push.”

– Letter to “Brother Mukhtar” in 2002

JNIM Fighters Speaking
JNIM fighters in Africa's Maghreb


“The teacher [bin Laden] corresponds directly with you and that, unfortunately, is his habit that he will not abandon. If someone opposes him, he immediately puts forward another person to render an opinion in his support, clinging to his opinion and totally disregarding those around him.”

– Letter in 2002

 “The first reaction [after 9/11] was the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second was the invasion of Iraq. The mistakes might happen over and again, and there might be other random reactions….Woe unto the Americans, British, and everyone who supports them when our nation wakes up. Our objective, therefore, was to prompt the Americans to come out of their hole and deal powerful strikes to the body of the nation that did not exist. Without these strikes there would be no hope for this nation to wake up.”

– Biography of Zarqawi in 2005

On Israel

“Direct and constant clashes with the Israelis are a more important element that will disseminate the jihadist tenet and give it credibility that allows it to achieve two major objectives. It will justify a genuine leadership for the Islamic world and contribute to undermining Israel and go ahead on the path to annihilate it, God willing.”

– Biography of Zarqawi in 2005 

On the Arab world

“The atheism of the governments ruling our Arab and Islamic world is obvious. Everyone knows that these regimes first govern in violation of God's Sharia and, second, support the Israelis and polytheists who have been the nation's enemy throughout history. Third, the animosity of these regimes to Islam and Muslims is very obvious.”

– Biography of Zarqawi in 2005 

“The security mess that resulted from the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime provided a good opportunity for jihadist Islamic action to have roots and spread in the Iraqi arena. Such an action would not have succeeded if the former regime stayed in power. These opportunities might occur again in other regions. We expect that Syria and Lebanon will face similar circumstances.”

 – Biography of Zarqawi in 2005 

Hurras al Din Fighters
Hurras al Din fighters in Syria

On Iran

“This passage [into Afghanistan from Iran] was new and important to us in al Qaeda. We used it instead of the old route through Pakistan, particularly for the passage of our Arab brothers. This issue prompted us to think of building good relations with some virtuous people in Iran to coordinate on issues of mutual interest. Coordination with the Iranians was later achieved. Coordination was made with sincere individuals who were hostile to the Americans and the Israelis. It was not made with the Iranian government”

– Biography of Zarqawi in 2005  

On Pakistan

 “Another important matter is to win the regional political battle so that no country or government is allowed to exercise the same role the malicious Pakistani government played. This is the most dangerous role and had the biggest impact in Afghanistan. Pakistan is the one which provided the land for American military forces to advance from, provided them with intelligence, and also provided them with hypocritical people as an alternative to the Taliban State.”

– “In the Shadow of the Lances” in 2003

On Hostage-taking and Beheading

“Pressure on the sentiments of the people of the hostile regime from two angles: The first is the suffering of the hostages and sending it to them through videotapes that show their life suffering in the conditions of captivity. The word ‘suffering’ is more comprehensive than the word ‘torture’ because it contains the meaning starting from psychological pressure and deprivation of freedom and life privileges and the practice of hard work through physical torture and ending with beheadings, so it is not appropriate in every case. Rather, this matter must be practiced with the utmost sensitivity and gradualism in a manner that benefits the operation in particular and the case in general.”

– “Manual on Kidnapping” in 2000

On Race

“The conflict is racist between the white man and other human beings and has two forms. The first: their war against Islam from an ideological standpoint. This is a war of extermination and eradication, like in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, South Sudan, and the bloody wound that is Palestine. The second: their exploitative war against the dispossessed. This includes the employment of wealth; the quagmire of waste; and a range of experiments on segments of humanity who are poor or have black skin.”

– “Manual on Kidnapping” in 2000










About the Author

Ryan Zoellner

Ryan Zoellner

Research Assistant;
Ryan Zoellner is a research assistant with the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is a graduate student at Harvard University focusing on political Islam in Iraq and the greater Levant. He is also an associate editor at Harvard’s Journal of Middle Eastern Policy and Politics. 
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