Who is Al Qaeda’s new leader? U.N. experts say it’s widely believed to be this man

Former Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri
The late Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri, pictured, is widely believed to have been succeeded by Sayf Adl, the onetime head of security for Osama bin Laden.
(B.K. Bangash / Associated Press)
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Experts with the United Nations say the predominant view among member states is that the leadership of Al Qaeda has passed to Sayf Adl, who was responsible for Osama bin Laden’s security and trained some of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The panel of experts said in a report to the U.N. Security Council circulated Monday that no announcement has been made of Adl replacing Ayman Zawahiri, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul in July.

“But in discussions in November and December many U.N. member states took the view that Sayf al-’Adl is already operating as the de facto and uncontested leader of the group,” the report says.


Assessments vary as to why Adl’s leadership hasn’t been declared, it says.

Some countries feel that Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul embarrassed Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, who are seeking international legitimacy, and that Al Qaeda “chose not to exacerbate this by acknowledging the death,” the experts said.

“However, most judged a key factor to be the continued presence of Sayf al-’Adl in the Islamic Republic of Iran, [which] raised difficult theological and operational questions” for Al Qaeda, the experts said.

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While noting that one country rejected claims that Iran is home to any Al Qaeda affiliate, the panel said Adl’s location “raises questions that have a bearing on [Al Qaeda’s] ambitions to assert leadership of a global movement in the face of challenges” from rival extremist group Islamic State.

Adl has been on the U.N. sanctions blacklist as Egyptian-born Mohammed Salahaldin Abd El Halim Zidan since January 2001, the panel said. He is described in the U.N. listing as taking over as military commander of Al Qaeda after the death of Mohammed Atef — one of Bin Laden’s top aides — in a U.S. attack in November 2001.

In addition to being Bin Laden’s security chief, the U.N. says, Adl taught militants to use explosives and trained some of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. It says he also trained Somali fighters who killed 18 U.S. servicemen in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Adl is wanted by U.S. authorities in connection with the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.


A U.N. report says people in sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly turning to Islamic extremism because of economic factors rather than religious ones.

Feb. 7, 2023

According to the report, the threat from Al Qaeda, Islamic State and their affiliates “remains high in conflict zones and neighboring countries,” with Africa emerging in recent years “as the continent where the harm done by terrorism is developing most rapidly and extensively.”

The panel said the Islamic State’s leadership has also become a question after the group’s Nov. 30 announcement that Abu Hassan Hashimi Qurayshi had died in a battle the previous month, the group’s second leader to be killed in 2022.

“The new leader was announced as Abu al-Husain al-Husaini al-Qurashi, and his true identity is not yet known,” the experts said.

U.N. member states noted numerous pledges of allegiance to Abu Hassan by Islamic State “affiliates far and wide without specific knowledge of his identity or qualities as a leader,” the experts said.