In the wake of Osama bin Laden's demise, Egyptian jihad veteran Saif al-Adel has reportedly been tapped as the "caretaker" leader of al Qaeda. The decision to elevate Adel to interim chief was reportedly made at a meeting of six to eight senior al Qaeda leaders — not the whole central council, which will pick a permanent replacement. But just who is Adel, and why was he picked to temporarily lead al Qaeda in the post–bin Laden era?
What's al-Adel's story?
Adel is a former Egyptian special forces colonel in his late 40s or 50s. (Saif al-Adel is a pseudonym meaning "sword of justice.") He left Egypt in 1981, and fought with the anti-Soviet mujahedin in Afghanistan, where he hooked up with al Qaeda. His expertise in explosives and weapons helped him rise through al Qaeda's ranks, and the FBI — which has a $5 million bounty on his head — fingers Adel as a key planner of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He is said to be close to bin Laden's top deputy, fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Why name an interim chief?
Al Qaeda followers were getting nervous about not having a leader, according to former al Qaeda ally Noman Benotman, a Libyan now at the Quilliam Foundation, a British think tank. And since regional terror groups had all pledged "baya," a religious oath of allegiance, to bin Laden, not al Qaeda, the central group worried its network might fall apart if a new leader wasn't named quickly.
The news surprised a lot of analysts, who expected Zawahiri to assume control right away. But Zawahiri is not universally liked or respected within al Qaeda, and he's "not known for his charisma," says Ishaan Tharoor in TIME. The "more pragmatic" Adel might have been picked to "push al Qaeda in a new direction." Specifically, his connections to other militant groups could broaden al Qaeda's network and capacity to attack the West.
Are there doubts about Adel's ascension?
Yes. CBS News quotes several experts suggesting that Adel's promotion is being exaggerated, or is just plain wrong. Some analysts speculate that Adel was merely promoted to military chief, and many say it's inconceivable that anybody but Zawahiri would be put in charge. Jason Burke says in The Guardian that Adel's promotion "would be something of a demotion" for Zawahiri, and could be the "first evidence of a major split within militant ranks."
Who's on the short list to take over long-term?
The presumptive frontrunner is still Zawahiri. Benotman says some al Qaeda leaders believe bin Laden must be replaced by someone else from the Arabian Peninsula, and that Adel might be a trial balloon. Others suggest a Yemeni cleric, Muhammad Mustafa Yamni, could succeed bin Laden. There's also some speculation that U.S.-born Yemeni firebrand Anwar al-Awlaki could lead al Qaeda. The terrorist ringleader's many sons are apparently off the list.
Does it matter who replaces bin Laden?
Maybe not. The Arab Spring is sapping al Qaeda's relevance, says Tucker Reals at CBS News, and with its survival on the line, "who's named the new figurehead likely will matter more to Western analysts than the people planning suicide attacks." Still, jihad will continue, perhaps with smaller, harder-to-prevent attacks, so "in the end, it doesn't help much to ask who the next bin Laden is, since the problem is bigger than any one man."