Abstract: Saif al-`Adl has been described as one of al-Qa`ida’s most effective operatives and one of the few remaining leaders from the pre-9/11 era with the stature to take over from current al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. There has been renewed focus on al-`Adl since unconfirmed reports surfaced last year of his release from Iranian imprisonment, but his current status remains unclear. This profile provides a brief biographical sketch of al-`Adl and examines the impact he might have on al-Qa`ida operations and strategy if his release is confirmed. 

Saif al-`Adl (Muhamad Silah Al din Al Halim Zeidan) was born on April 11 in 1960 or 1963 in Monufia Governorate, Egypt.[1][a] Little is known about the Egyptian’s upbringing, however, it is likely that he grew up secular.[b] According to an unconfirmed jihadist account, the Egyptian operative studied business at Shibin el Kom University. At some point during young adulthood, al-`Adl frequented the Fajr al Islam in Shibin el-Kom mosque where he may have become radicalized.[2] The circumstances of his radicalization and decision to join the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) are unclear.

Egyptian Jihad 
By the mid-1980s, al-`Adl was a lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces and concurrently involved in Islamist activity aimed at overthrowing the Mubarak regime. On May 6, 1987, he was arrested, along with 6,000 other militants, after an attempted assassination of Interior Minister Hasan Abu Basha. Due to a paucity of evidence against him, al-`Adl was released and promptly demoted.[3] The event precipitated his travel to Afghanistan via Saudi Arabia and, in turn, his decision to join Usama bin Ladin’s nascent Arab Afghan organization.

Al-`Adl gleaned certain lessons from his time in EIJ, shaping his strategic outlook. He later recounted that the jihadi movement in Egypt failed in large part due to “over-enthusiasm that resulted in hasty action or recklessness at the time,” a theme he would return to in his criticism of the 9/11 operation years later.[4] The Islamist movement, he wrote, “lacked the necessary expertise” as well as the “seasoned leadership” to ensure its own survival.[5]

In 1989, al-`Adl told his brother Hasan that he was traveling to Saudi Arabia to seek work. Hasan drove his brother to the airport, never to hear from him again.[6] According to one jihadist account, al-`Adl made the umrah between Mecca and Medina and met Usama bin Ladin in the process, an anecdote that has not been confirmed.[7][c] 

Al-`Adl and al-Qa`ida
Although al-`Adl was not a founding father of al-Qa`ida (established in August 1988), he played an instrumental role in building the organization’s operational capabilities from the ground up. He joined the organization sometime in 1989,[d] where his expertise in military tactics made him an invaluable recruit. During those early years, the former commando served as an instructor in al-Qa`ida training camps in Afghanistan, including Jihad Wahl.[8] He conducted a “security offensive” course, teaching militants how to carry out abductions and assassinations. According to Nasser al-Bahri, a former bodyguard of Usama bin Ladin, the Egyptian operative directed his students to spend days “studying [their] target’s routine: when they ate, where the mosque and canteen were located, how many people were left on guard during prayers and meals, how they organized their rotas.”[9] Furthermore, al-`Adl helped al-Qa`ida formulate doctrines in target assessment and intelligence collection that strengthened the organization’s operational capabilities.[10]

Given the Egyptian operative’s in-demand skill sets, he quickly ascended the al-Qa`ida hierarchy. By the mid-1990s, al-`Adl became the head of al-Qa`ida’s security committee, part of the security detail for bin Ladin and Muhammad Atef’s (Abu Hafs al Masri) right-hand man in the military committee.[11]

Al-`Adl played an important role in the establishment of al-Qa`ida’s infrastructure in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. In 1993, he traveled, along with senior Egyptian al-Qa`ida operative Abu Muhammad al Masri, via Kenya to Ras Kambooni in Somalia to establish a training camp.[12] There, al-`Adl developed good relations with the Ogadan tribe, aligned with Somali warlord Farah Aideed’s faction.[13] The infrastructure in Ras Kambooni was subsequently utilized as a base to conduct raids on peacekeeping forces in the region. As Abu Walid al Masri, al-`Adl’s father-in-law, put it in a letter to him and other al-Qa`ida operatives at the time, “The American bald eagle has landed within range of our rifles. You can kill it or leave it permanently disfigured,” an ominous turn of phrase indicating al-Qa`ida’s willingness to take on American forces in the region.[14]

Interlocutor between bin Ladin and al-Zarqawi
In 1999, al-`Adl met with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had just been released from Jordanian imprisonment for his role in an attempt on the life of an American diplomat in Amman.[15] After hearing reports of al-Zarqawi’s arrival in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and conferring with the radical preacher Abu Qatada al Falistini, al-`Adl along with a colleague met al-Zarqawi in a guesthouse there.[16] The Egyptian operative found that he had a great deal in common with al-Zarqawi, including an “uncompromising” nature.[17] The following morning, al-`Adl convinced bin Ladin, despite his reservations over the Jordanian operative’s refusal to swear bay`a, to invest in al-Zarqawi’s nascent Tawhid organization.[18] By providing seed money, al-Zarqawi was able to establish a training camp in Herat, near the Afghanistan-Iran border.[19]

The decision to establish a training camp and smuggling routes proved to be fortuitous. It was becoming increasingly more arduous for militants to travel to Afghanistan via Pakistan because of a Pakistani crackdown on Arab Afghan activity. Two al-Qa`ida stations in Tehran and Mashad were established to facilitate travel to and from Afghanistan.[20] In the aftermath of 9/11, al-`Adl likely used the same routes to smuggle al-Qa`ida operatives into Iran.

Global Terror
According to testimony provided to the U.S. government by Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, lead planner of the 9/11 attacks, in the spring of 1999 Usama bin Ladin and Muhammad Atef approved the attack plans that evolved into the 9/11 attacks.[21] Al-`Adl was informed of the plot sometime in April 2001.[22] According to the 9/11 Commission, al-`Adl was part of a faction within al-Qa`ida that had reservations about the plot because they feared it could endanger the position of the Taliban.[23]

On June 13, 2002, al-`Adl wrote in a private communiqué to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to “stop rushing into action and take time out to consider all the fatal and successive disasters that have afflicted us during a period of no more than six months.”[24] He went on to disparage bin Ladin as an ineffective leader who did not accept dissent. “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.”[25] In his treatise on Security and Intelligence, al-`Adl made a similar point. He argued that when an enemy continues to inflict heavy losses on a jihadist organization, it is necessary for the shabaab (youth) to refrain from action and regroup.[26] In short he was critical of any rush to action devoid of careful cost-benefit analysis. 

Despite his private dissatisfaction with the results of the 9/11 attacks, publicly al-`Adl towed the party line. He claimed in his 2005 biography of al-Zarqawi that the “ultimate objective” of the planes operation “against the head of the snake was to prompt it to come out of its burrow,” and this had been partially achieved.[27] In other words, the aim of the operation was to provoke imperial overreach on the part of the United States, by instigating an invasion of Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq. It is possible that al-Qa`ida’s restored fortunes and growing presence in Iraq had made him reconsider his previous position.

Smuggling Operatives to Iran 
Al-`Adl argued that the American bombardment of al-Qa`ida installations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom served two principal aims: to put an end to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and eliminate the al-Qa`ida hierarchy.[28] In recognition of American aims, he outlined how al-Qa`ida evacuated its personnel and did its utmost to salvage what remained of its network in Afghanistan.[29] In the aftermath of the fall of Kandahar in December 2001, al-`Adl led a cohort of al-Qa`ida operatives to Iran transiting via a network of safe houses.[30] He later recounted:

We began to flock to Iran one after the other. The brothers in the Arab Peninsula, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan had already arrived. They possessed abundant funds. We set up a central leadership circle and subordinate circles. We began to rent apartments for the brothers and some of their families.[31] 

When he and Abu Muhammad al Masri arrived in Iran, al-`Adl reestablished contact with al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and sent operatives to Afghanistan to carry out operations.[e] He may have played an operational role in the May 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, albeit a circumscribed one because of his imprisonment, which began a month earlier.[32] Saudi and American pressure had led Tehran to imprison al-`Adl along with Abu Muhammad al-Masri.[33] Thereafter, al-`Adl’s operational involvement diminished precipitously,[f] though he remained able to publish articles online occasionally.[34]

Fallout between al-Qa`ida Central and al-Zarqawi
By the mid-2000s, al-Qa`ida Central was infuriated by al-Zarqawi’s sectarian campaign against Iraqi Shiites, creating a public relations quagmire for the organization.[35] In December 2005, Attiyat Abdul Rahman al-Libi reprimanded al-Zarqawi in a scathing letter, which suggested his brutal and unrestrained targeting of the Shia was endangering the entire brand.[36]

It is unclear where al-`Adl stood on the schism between bin Ladin and al-Zarqawi due to a lack of primary source documentation on the subject. Given he had been an early champion al-Zarqawi and praised him in the 2005 biography, the growing tension must have been awkward for al-`Adl. Interestingly, al-`Adl raised ideas that the Islamic State would later champion. In contrast to bin Ladin’s more methodical approach to an Islamic caliphate, al-`Adl wrote that he had advised al-Zarqawi that circumstances were appropriate for the declaration of an Islamic state.[37]

Operational Atrophy 
Al-Qa`ida leaders were still holding out hope that al-`Adl might be released but recognized that even under the best of circumstances, it would take time for him to return to the fray. After bin Ladin’s death there were reports al-`Adl took over in a caretaker capacity before Ayman al-Zawahiri was appointed leader, but this was not confirmed by the terrorist organization.[38] Al-Qa`ida’s own correspondence suggests he had stopped playing any operational role by then. On July 17, 2010, (Sha’ban 5, 1431 al hijri), Attiyah wrote to bin Ladin:

I ask God to release our brothers from prison so they can come to help us carry the load. They are qualified. Abu-Muhammad al-Zayyat, Abu-al-Kayr, Saif al-`Adl, and others. However, if God facilitates their release they will really need to spend at least six months (and maybe a year) relearning how things work, refreshing their knowledge, their activity and vitality. During this period, they would be relatively nearby and we would gradually seek their advice in the matters, then maybe we could turn things over to them.[39]

Around the same time, al-`Adl’s writings appear to have become less focused on improving al-Qa`ida’s operational capabilities and far more philosophical in nature, addressing political developments in the region. In 2011, al-`Adl utilized his father-in-law Abu Walid al-Masri’s former blog, Mafa Asia, to publish a series of essays on the Arab Spring, the semantics of terrorism, and differences of opinion with al Masri himself regarding al-Qa`ida’s failures.[40][g]  Al-Masri argued that the organization should be disbanded due to its monumental failures.[41] Al-`Adl respectfully disagreed, alleging that al-Qa`ida’s actions, particularly the 9/11 hijackings, precipitated imperial overreach on the part of the U.S. military and would be studied at military colleges for years to come.[42]

Future Role 
Few operatives in al-Qa`ida Central elicit as much concern within the intelligence community as al-`Adl.[h] The Egyptian operative has served several roles within the organization, including military trainer, head of Usama bin Ladin’s security detail, and head of al-Qa`ida’s security committee. Al-`Adl has demonstrated an uncanny capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, for example not only surviving over a decade of imprisonment in Iran but using it to lengthen his career.

If unconfirmed recent reports of his release are accurate,[i] al-`Adl would provide much needed operational expertise to al-Qa`ida. And he would be one of very few pre-9/11 al-Qa`ida leaders still in circulation with the gravitas to take over leadership from al-Zawahiri one day. A review of his writings since 9/11 suggest he would likely encourage the movement to pursue limited (actionable) objectives and avoid instigating overwhelming retaliation by the United States. Al-`Adl views violence as a “military professional” would, eschewing the opportunism of bin Ladin and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and pursuing a meticulous cost-benefit analysis before taking action.[43] The return of the shrewd Egyptian strategist would strengthen al-Qa`ida at a time when it is facing increasing competition from the Islamic State, particularly in East Africa because of his wealth of experience operating in the region.

Ari Weisfuse is an independent security analyst based in Denver, Colorado, whose research on al-Qa`ida has previously been published by the Jamestown Foundation. He has a degree from Brandeis University where he graduated with high honors in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. His senior thesis was on Saif al-`Adl. 

Substantive Notes
[a] For years, al-`Adl was confused with Muhammad Ibraham Makkawi. According to Yassir al Siri, al-`Adl’s true name is Muhamad Silah al din al-Halim Zeidan and is known within the jihadist community by the alias “al madani” (of Medina or Medinan). Islamic Media Observatory, “Sayf al ‘Adl is not Muhammad Makawi,” posted May 24, 2011, accessed via jihadology.net.

[b] In his 2005 biography of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, al-`Adl specifically stipulated that he “was guided by God to understand the right Islam in the early 1980s.” In other words, he presumably did not grow up devout until his radicalization sometime in the early 1980s. Saif al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.” The biography was first posted on jihadi forums by the Global Islamic Media Front in 2005 and obtained and translated by the Open Source Center in August 2009. The Egyptian operative’s brother Hasan Zeidan asserted that al-`Adl was not involved with any sheikhs nor did he show any animosity toward non-Muslims. Ali Zalat, “Sayf al ‘Adl ‘al haqiqi’: shaqiqhu yutabaruhu mtawfi wa adilhu ‘muatiqal fi Iran,’” Al Masri al Yawm, February 29, 2012.

[c] Shortly after the umrah, the Zeidan family was informed that al-`Adl had died along the journey, an assertion that could be interpreted as some form of obfuscation either by al-`Adl or his family. Zalat.

[d] Based on an exchange between Abu Walid al Masri (al-`Adl’s father-in-law) and Abir Sabil (aka al-`Adl), the Egyptian operative joined al-Qa`ida in 1989. Abu Walid al Masri documented the exchange in his blog at www.mustafahamed.com, however, the site was recently wiped. The exchange should still be accessible through other jihadist forums. See “Bein yadi risala al qaeda ila mawqih mafa al siyasi,” muslm.org; see also Ari Weisfuse, “Negotiating Oblivion. Sayf al ‘Adl: Al Qaeda’s Top Operative,” senior thesis presented to the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences of Brandeis University, p. 23.

[e] In 2005 al-`Adl wrote, “We reestablished contact with the leadership. We began to support it again. This was one of our objectives from leaving Afghanistan. We began to form some groups of fighters to return to Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there.” Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi,” 2005.

[f] In 2005 al-`Adl wrote, “The Americans felt that Iranians were shutting their eyes to our activity in Iran. Thus, they began to launch a concentrated media campaign against Iran. They accused Iran of helping the al-Qa`ida and global terrorism. The Iranians responded by pursuing the young men and arresting them. The steps that the Iranians took against us confused us and foiled 75 percent of our plan.” Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[g] In August 2015, a series of articles attributed to al-`Adl were published on justpaste.it, including two on guerilla warfare and revolutionary warfare and a quasi-eulogy on Abu Khalid al Suri, who al-`Adl referred to as a lion of jihad. The tone al-`Adl used suggested they had known each other in Afghanistan. Al-`Adl also published “The Series of Conflicts and the Wind of Change: Guerilla Warfare and Revolutionary Warfare,” which he dedicated to al-Qa`ida’s martyrs, his wife, two daughters, and sons.

[h] Richard Barrett, former head of MI6 Counterterrorism, stated that al-`Adl “is operationally about the smartest senior leader that the organization has […and] possibly the only chance that the central al-Qa`ida leadership has to survive beyond al-Zawahiri.” Personal interview, Richard Barrett, January 2, 2014.

[i] The reports stated that al-`Adl and four other al-Qa`ida operatives were released by Iran in March 2015 as part of a prisoner swap with al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which had captured an Iranian diplomat. Iran denied the reports. “Terror Fears As Iran Frees Al Qaeda Members,” Sky News, September 14, 2015; Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of Al Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015. Some analysts are skeptical that Iran would take the risk of releasing al-`Adl given Iran and al-Qa`ida are fighting on different sides of the civil war in Syria.

[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Wanted Terrorists – Saif Al-Adel.”

[2] Ali Zalat, “Sayf al ‘Adl ‘al haqiqi’: shaqiqhu yutabaruhu mtawfi wa adilhu ‘muatiqal fi Iran,’” Al Masri al Yawm, February 29, 2012.

[3] Ari Weisfuse, “Negotiating Oblivion. Sayf al ‘Adl: Al Qaeda’s Top Operative,” senior thesis presented to the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences of Brandeis University, p. 19.

[4] Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi,” 2005.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ali Zalat, “‘Al Masri Al Yawm’ fi munzil zaim ‘al Qaeda’ al mawqif bi ‘Shabin el Kum’: usrathu tusiru ala wafathu wa tanfi salathu bi al tanzim,” Al Masri Al Yawm, May 23, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Weisfuse, pp. 27-28.

[9] Nasser al-Bahri, Guarding Bin Laden: My Life in Al-Qaeda (London, U.K.: Thin Man Press, 2013), p. 61.

[10] Al-`Adl, “Security and Intelligence,” posted May 2011, accessed via jihadology.net.

[11] Al-Bahri.

[12] Harmony Document AFGP-2002-600104, “The Ogaden File: Operation Holding (Al-MSK) (English Translation), Combating Terrorism Center at West Point; Weisfuse, p. 40.

[13] Harmony Document AFGP-2002-600113, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

[14] Harmony Document AFGP-2002-600053, “Five Letters to the Africa Corps,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point; Weisfuse, p. 42.

[15] Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2015).

[16] Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Joby Warrick, pp. 66-67.

[19] Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “Substitution for the Testimony of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” United States vs. Moussaoui, p. 4.

[22] Ibid., p. 51; Sally Neighbour, The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman’s Extraordinary Journey into Jihad (Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2010), pp. 272-273.

[23] The 9/11 Commission Report, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004, p. 251.

[24] Al-`Adl, “Al-Adl-Letter,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 13, 2002; Weisfuse, p. 74.

[25] Al-`Adl, “Al-Adl-Letter.”

[26] Al-`Adl, “Security and Intelligence,” posted May 2011, accessed via jihadology.net.

[27] Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[28] Ibid.

[29] Weisfuse, p. 64; Ben Venzke and Aimee Ibrahim, “Al-Qaeda’s Advice for Mujahidden in Iraq: Lessons Learned in Afghanistan” (Alexandria, VA: IntelCenter, April 14, 2003).

[30] Weisfuse, pp. 68-69.

[31] Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[32] Thomas Small and Jonathan Hacker, Path of Blood: The Story of Al Qaeda’s War on the House of Saud (New York, NY: The Overlook Press, 2015), p. 34; Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. v Sulaiman Abu Ghayth Statement, March 12, 2014, p. 8.

[33] Ibid., p. 11.

[34] Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. v Sulaiman Abu Ghayth Statement, March 12, 2014.

[35] Weisfuse, p. 88.

[36] Attiyat Abdul Rahman al-Libi, “`Atiyah’s Letter to Zarqawi (English Translation),” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, December 12, 2005.

[37] Al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.”

[38] Peter Bergen, “Egyptian Saif al-Adel now acting leader of al Qaeda, ex-militant says,” CNN, May 17, 2011.

[39] United States District Court Eastern District of New York, U.S. vs. Abid Naseer, Government Exhibit 423, February 15, 2015, p. 8; Michael S. Smith II, “Abbottabad Documents Revealed In US V. Abid Naseer,” Downrange, March 6, 2015; Thomas Joscelyn, “Senior al Qaeda leaders reportedly released from custody in Iran,” Long War Journal, September 18, 2015.

[40] Weisfuse, p. 95;

[41] R. Green, “Online Exchange between Mustafa Hamid and Saif al-`Adl Represents New Wave of Internal Jihadi Criticism,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, July 2011.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Personal interview, Vahid Brown, academic, February 17, 2014.

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