Key Al-Qaida Leader Owes Rise To Unlikely Ally: Iran Intelligence officials say no one in al-Qaida worries them more right now than Saif al-Adel. For years, al-Adel was detained in Iran, which prevented the U.S. from targeting him. Now, there are reports he's been made al-Qaida's interim leader.

Key Al-Qaida Leader Owes Rise To Unlikely Ally: Iran

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


Steve Inskeep's on assignment in Pakistan. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Nearly a month after Osama bin Laden was killed, it is still unclear who is now leading al-Qaida. The presumed successor was thought to be bin Laden's second in command, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. But no formal announcement has been made. Partly because of that, other names have been floated.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this profile on one of them.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials will tell you that no one in al-Qaida worries them more right now than a man named Saif al-Adel. A former colonel in the Egyptian army, al-Adel served in its special forces before he joined the terrorist group. And then soon after joining al-Qaida, U.S. officials say he was put in charge of the group's intelligence training. He ran a six month course for promising operatives to teach them how to track people and gather information and lose someone who might be trailing them.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): He's not an amateur when it comes to terrorism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

Prof. HOFFMAN: And at almost every pivotal point in al-Qaida's history, he's been the go-to guy. He's been the hands on guy who firstly assisted in making the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa happen. While he was in his exile in Iran, he was instrumental in mounting a series of potentially catastrophic attacks had they continued in Saudi Arabia. So he's a key player and he's also, I think an extraordinarily accomplished fighter and someone therefore who's extremely dangerous.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Adel was in Iran because he was one of a handful of al-Qaida operatives who fled there from Afghanistan right after the 9/11 attacks. Some of the arrivals in Tehran were allowed to come and go. Others, like Saif al-Adel, were put under house arrest with little hope of being released. That's where al-Adel's story takes another interesting turn.

In 2008 an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped. Here's how the incident was reported on Al Jazeera.

(Soundbite of al-Jazeera broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Armed men stopped his car and shot his bodyguard to death when he tried to resist them. Of course some suspect that the Taliban Pakistan and extremist groups such as al-Qaida were behind the attack.

TEMPLE-RASTON: According to U.S. officials familiar with the case, they were. Al-Qaida had a hand in the abduction. That was followed by two years of negotiations and then a trade. The Iranian diplomat was swapped for key al-Qaida members, including Saif al-Adel. Al-Adel and a handful of other senior leaders were reunited with al-Qaida late last year.

Former Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate said al-Qaida suddenly had men with fighting experience back in the game.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Center for Strategic and International Studies): That set of al-Qaida leaders is incredibly important because they represent the old guard of al-Qaida who could replenish the senior leadership fairly quickly and easily.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zarate says Iran scored twice. It managed to get their hostage back and at the same time hurt the U.S. by strengthening al-Qaida.

Mr. ZARATE: By releasing perhaps senior al-Qaida leaders like Saif al-Adel, Iran helps to continue the al-Qaida franchise, which is a thorn in the side of the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now there are reports that al-Qaida has made al-Adel its interim leader, essentially leapfrogging him over bin Laden's number two, Zawahiri.

Rick Nelson tracks al-Qaida for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says al-Adel has Iran to thank if he does eventually become al-Qaida's new leader.

Mr. RICK NELSON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Being in Iran for a long period of time, through most of the U.S. war against al-Qaida, you know, preserved his life in many ways and now has put in him a position to possibly take over the organization.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, because al-Adel was in Iran, the U.S. couldn't target him for the last nine years. Now, nearly a month after bin Laden's death, al-Qaida has yet to formally name a replacement. Until that happens, al-Adel's new role is only speculation.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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