The intelligence community now believes that the plot to bomb cargo planes came from the brain of a man calling himself Saif al-Adel, al-Qaeda’s military chief who returned to North Waziristan in April after spending nine years in Iran. The elite terrorist is now fully back in the game, promoted to overseer of international attacks, free of whatever restraints his Iranian hosts imposed upon him.
Al-Adel is believed to be redesigning al-Qaeda’s strategy. He is making more use of regional affiliates and is focused on quantity over quality of terrorist attacks. An operation doesn’t necessarily have to be carried out as hoped for in order for it to be effective. A near-miss is still a success because of the psychological and economic affects it has. Like a blindfolded man throwing darts, he’ll eventually hit the scoreboard with enough tries. As I previously wrote, the goal is to make Americans know what it is like to be an Israeli.
He believes that a consistent stream of small attacks will convince the people of the West that the war cannot be won. His priority is for al-Qaeda to take over territory in places like Yemen and Somalia and then expand the terrorist group’s reach. In May 2009, I said there were three types of jihadists and al-Qaeda was of the “total” type that immediately attacks everywhere and anywhere. Saif al-Adel has criticized his colleagues for being “random” and is moving the group more into the “near enemy jihadist” category that focuses on winning regional battles. Al-Adel says “the greater objective … is the establishment of a state.”
“The new attrition strategy marks the triumph of a minority faction within al-Qaeda who had opposed the 9/11 attacks, arguing that the inevitable U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan would cost the jihadist movement its only secure base,” writes the Telegraph. There is no evidence that al-Adel opposed the 9/11 attacks and he clearly doesn’t want to write off Europe and the U.S. as targets, but it is probable that he sees smaller but more frequent attacks as ideal for undermining morale without provoking a renewed determination on the part of al-Qaeda’s enemies. If Osama bin Laden chose al-Adel for this role, then it is an unstated admission that his current strategy isn’t working and perhaps that even 9/11 was a strategic mistake.
Only someone with al-Adel’s resume could be respected enough by Osama bin Laden for his criticism to be taken seriously. He has served as a colonel in Egypt’s special forces and was arrested in 1987 for drawing up plans for sophisticated attacks including truck bombings and the slamming of a plane into the parliament building. He later became wanted by the FBI for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. In May 2003, he gave the orders to carry out the bombings in Riyadh that caused the Saudis to crack down on al-Qaeda.
It is believed that al-Adel was released in April from “house arrest” in Iran along with other al-Qaeda leaders in return for the release of Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan kidnapped by the terrorist group last year. This clash is just the latest episode in the tumultuous relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda and should not be seen as a severance of the links between the two.
Iran started housing many al-Qaeda leaders, including probably Osama bin Laden, after the war in Afghanistan began. This was a way of helping a partner in the fight against the West, but it was also self-serving as it gave the Iranian regime a certain degree of control over the al-Qaeda elements in their country. The terrorist group had relative freedom in Iran until February 2003, when Saif al-Adel’s communications authorizing the attacks in Riyadh were intercepted. The regime placed him and others under “house arrest,” restricting their freedom of movement but still giving them enough freedom to serve in a terrorist capacity.
Al-Adel and others were moved to villas near Chalous and in Lavizan under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force. Al-Adel lived in Iran with his wife and five children until this year. He complained about Iran’s restrictions on his activity, saying that they were “trapped” there and that “the steps taken by Iran against us shook us and caused the failure of 75 percent of our plan,” when they were moving operatives into Iraq in 2002.
There is a consistent stream of testimony describing al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran as being “half prisoners, half guests.” Two of Osama bin Laden’s sons have complained about their dozens of family members not being allowed to leave Iran. One account claims that members of the terrorist group held at a camp in Iran went on a hunger strike in 2006 to protest the food they were being given. Al-Qaeda is unhappy with the lack of freedom Iran permits its members, and the kidnapping of the Iranian diplomat may have been the card they played.
This should not, however, be seen as the end of the partnership. Many al-Qaeda members remain in Iran. General Petraeus testified in March that al-Qaeda “continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.” Al-Qaeda may not have been allowed to do all they wanted, but the network in Iran was still allowed to serve a crucial role. The continued presence of al-Qaeda members and their families in Iran preserves the relationship out of dependency, common interests, and, if nothing else, coercion. This means that for the Iranian regime, Saif al-Adel’s release is not only part of a deal but also a deployment. The regime has stepped up its support for the Taliban and sees al-Adel’s presence in Pakistan as beneficial to their fight against NATO in Afghanistan. Al-Adel can and will still call on the Iranians for help when he needs it.
Saif al-Adel now sits in the driver’s seat. Perhaps it’s time to target those 150 terrorist training camps in Pakistan that the U.S. military has identified.