WASHINGTON – The death of Osama bin Laden has put a new focus on what role Iran might play in al-Qaida’s future, as intelligence officials around the world analyzed reports that Saif al-Adel had taken over as al-Qaida’s interim leader. Al-Adel was last known to be under house arrest outside Tehran.
The terrorist resume of al-Adel, one of al-Qaida’s founders, includes helping orchestrate the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. But he had sharp disagreements with bin Laden’s leadership and opposed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He accurately predicted that inciting the wrath of the U.S. would hurt al-Qaida’s worldwide efforts.
Al-Adel is among the many senior al-Qaida figures who fled into Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. They were arrested there in 2003 and were placed under what has been loosely called “house arrest” in a compound outside Tehran. Over the years, some have been able to come and go, and the U.S. has worried that Iran would someday free them to restore al-Qaida’s ranks.
This week, Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan who is now a security analyst in London, said al-Adel will serve as al-Qaida’s interim leader until bin Laden’s permanent successor is named.
It’s unclear exactly where al-Adel is. Some terrorism analysts and intelligence officials have said he left Iran last year and rejoined al-Qaida in the lawless region along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
Iran and al-Qaida have a relationship of convenience, not an alliance. The Shiite regime in Tehran is generally hostile to the Sunni terrorist organization, but they have a shared enemy in the United States.
If al-Adel or any of the other senior figures were released, Iran would be in violation of a United Nations resolution, and the U.S. has made it clear that’s unacceptable.