Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death at the hands of a US drone strike has raised questions about who will replace him as the leader of al Qaeda.
While the terrorist group is not short of contenders, its ranks are sparser and more geographically dispersed than 10 or 20 years ago.
Here’s what we know about who could be the next Al Qaeda leader.
The longtime insider
The man tipped by many analysts to be Zawahiri’s successor is Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian commando who is one of the last survivors of al Qaeda’s “founding generation” and has spent much of the past two decades in Iran.
Adel was a loyal servant to Osama bin Laden before acting as al Qaeda’s interim leader in 2011. He organized the succession process in favor of Zawahiri because that was bin Laden’s wish – even though Adel himself might have been a more effective choice as competition from ISIS grew in the following years.
Saif al-Adel is his nom de guerre, which translates as Sword of Justice. It’s not the only mystery about the man.
There are just a couple of purported photographs of him in existence. He is said to have faked his death in his 20s. His status in Iran has also been unclear: sometimes detained, sometimes under house arrest, sometimes at liberty.
Ali Soufan, former FBI special agent and author of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” describes Adel as the ultimate insider, someone well-connected across many countries, and a shrewd military tactician. For much of his adult life he has lived and breathed al Qaeda.
Soufan wrote in the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal recently that Adel played “a central role in audacious attacks from the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia to the bombings of US embassies in East Africa and the suicide attack on the destroyer the USS Cole.”
“When he acts, he does so with ruthless efficiency,” Soufan added. “Above all, he is a pragmatist – a man who would have known that despite the hateful necessity of living under a [Shia] government anathema to Sunni [al Qaeda], his best chance of survival, and therefore of continued effectiveness in the jihad, lay in a return to Iran.”
Soufan also notes that al-Adel was a mentor to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organization later morphed into ISIS.
“Saif as emir would enjoy a rare opportunity to attract some former Islamic State members back into [al Qaeda],” Soufan suggests.