Al-Qaeda, seemingly lagging in announcing a new leader to succeed Osama bin Laden, has reportedly appointed Saif al-Adel, the head of the organisation's military commission, as interim leader, according to Pakistani and Arab media reports.
The appointment of an interim emir is likely a result of the inability of al-Qaeda leaders to pick a permanent one.
This may be attributed to the fact that leaders with authority to pick the emir – usually leaders referred to as the "decision makers" or just members of the organisation's Shura Council – are spread over multiple sites and possibly multiple countries, requiring time to establish communication between them in order to reach an agreement on whom to name as the new leader of al-Qaeda.
Possibly further complicating the situation, those leaders may have changed their location and cut off communication with people they may now suspect were exposed, following the seizure of documents from bin Laden's home. These documents may have included information about the methods of communication used between bin Laden and the leaders of his organisation.
Regardless of the reasons that impede al-Qaeda's appointment of a genuine emir, the selection of Saif al-Adel, if the news of his appointment is confirmed, means the organisation now depends on an experienced fighter versed in warfare. Al-Adel was in charge of al-Qaeda's military committee for many years and served as a senior military officer (colonel) in the Egyptian army.
It seems the choice was made to appoint a military figure to temporarily direct the organisation, as opposed to a person with established Sharia credentials, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, for example.
Saif al-Adel, like his fellow Egyptian Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, came to al-Qaeda through the Islamic Jihad Group. This group supplied bin Laden with a number of leading cadres who helped him found the al-Qaeda organization in 1988. The Egyptian group allied itself with al-Qaeda in 1998 to form the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, a coalition that ultimately led to the total merger of the two organisations in 2001 under the name "The Qaeda [base] of Jihad".
Despite the fact that Saif al-Adel is suspected of involvement in terrorist operations carried out by al-Qaeda, such as his alleged involvement in the bombing of US embassies in East Africa in August 1998, his role had been shielded from the media, leaving the spotlight for bin Laden and Egyptians al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef (Abu Hafs), who was killed in a US raid on Kandahar in 2001.
Saif al-Adel allegedly played a prominent role in setting up al-Qaeda's defensive positions in Afghanistan on the eve of the "War on Terror" led by the United States after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Noman Benotman, a former leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and currently an analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-terrorism think tank focused on combating extremism, said Saif al-Adel led the battle to block the advance of US forces on Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban.
Benotman cites jihadists who participated in the battle at the Kandahar airport compound in December 2001 who said the battle reflected genuine ignorance about the rules of war. The combatants made the airport complex a base of operations from which they were to descend on Kandahar but lacked missiles to block the advance of the Americans, who bombed their positions and inflicted heavy losses on them.
In interviews with al-Hayat, Benotman alleges that Saif al-Adel did not directly lead the operation against the Americans, directing it instead from a remote location through communications devices.
After the battle of Kandahar, Saif al-Adel and a large number of al-Qaeda members and other jihadist groups reportedly fled to Iran.
Saif al-Adel's absence began in 2002 and continued until 2010 when frequent reports began to circulate about the return of al-Adel and number of other al-Qaeda leaders including the former head of the Sharia committee and member of the Shura council, Mahfuth ould al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Mauritani), and former spokesman of the organisation Suleiman Abu Gaith (Abu Yusuf).
Al-Mauritani and Abu Ghaith broke their silence in late 2010, through the issuance of a poem praising the Palestinians in Gaza by Al-Mauritani, and a message comprising "Guidelines on the path of jihad" by Abu Gaith. These messages were followed by the issuance of a long message signed by "Aber Sabeel", who was minimally introduced as one of "the most important figures in the first line of al-Qaeda's field forces". However, several reports confirmed that "Aber Sabeel" was none other than "Saif al-Adel."
Aber Sabeel issued his message on a website run by a known Egyptian jihadist, who had previously called for the dissolution of the al-Qaeda organisation and accused bin Laden of disobeying the orders of Mullah Omar. This sparked speculation that the return of some al-Qaeda leaders to the media spotlight after years of absence may reveal the existence of a new movement inside al-Qaeda that finds fault with some of the organisation's policies. This new movement may seek a re-evaluation of the past stage to identify mistakes committed and perhaps also identify those who bear responsibility for what has transpired since the attacks of September 11th until the present time.
It is known that Saif al-Adel and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, according to US investigations, opposed the attacks of September 11th. Saif al-Adel reportedly opposed them because the outcome would negatively impact the Taliban, and al-Mauritani had reservations about their legitimacy in Sharia.
The only official communication by the leadership of al-Qaeda since the killing of bin Laden has been a communiqué confirming his death and vowing revenge, in addition to 12-minute audio recording of a message to Muslims recorded by the al-Qaeda leader a week before his death.
Noticeable in the bin Laden's posthumous message, which was devoted to the Arab Spring revolutions, is that it dealt only with the revolutions in Tunis and Egypt, ignoring the revolutions in Libya, Yemen, and recently Syria, despite the fact that those revolutions erupted prior to the recording of his message.
It is not clear why bin Laden ignored the situation in countries experiencing bloody conflicts between supporters of the revolution and supporters of current governments.
In the message, the al-Qaeda leader addressed Arab revolutionaries, saying, "Take the initiative and beware of dialogue. There is no meeting half-way between the people of truth and people of deception." It appears from this position that he did not believe that change could come through dialogue with the ruling regimes.
In his message bin Laden did not address the criticism directed at the organisation for failing to play a pivotal role in Arab revolutions. The organisation was removed from the reality of the Arab street whose masses marched to public squares calling for a peaceful change of government, rather than resorting to violence, bombings and assassinations, as some jihadist groups have done in the past.