The US government has named who it believes is the new head of Al Qaeda after the group’s former leader Aymenn Al Zawahiri died in a drone strike in Kabul on August 2.
Saif Al Adel currently resides in Iran, the US State Department said, supporting the assertion of a recent UN report that said Tehran was sheltering the militant.
“Our assessment aligns with that of the UN — that Al Qaeda's new de facto leader Saif Al Adel is based in Iran,” a state department representative said.
Iran and Al Qaeda have a contentious relationship. Iran says it does not support “terrorists”, but in August 2020 it was widely reported that the group’s second in command, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, was assassinated in Tehran.
Under the Donald Trump administration, secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Iran was the “new Afghanistan” for Al Qaeda militants. The group emerged in Afghanistan, from the Islamist resistance fighting against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.
Many analysts disputed Mr Pompeo’s claim, pointing to a flurry of arrests of Al Qaeda members in Iran in 2002 and the absence of strong evidence of co-operation.
Tehran also supported President Bashar Al Assad in Syria against an uprising that included elements of Al Qaeda and ISIS.
When a US-led coalition toppled the Taliban, who had sheltered Al Qaeda following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Iran did not publicly oppose the move, former US ambassador Ryan Crocker said.
He called stabilising Afghanistan a “common interest” in a 2013 interview.
The UN report released on Tuesday said that the predominant view is that Al Adel is now the group's leader, “representing continuity for now”.
But the group has not formally declared him “emir” because of sensitivity to the concerns of the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan, who have not acknowledge that Al Zawahiri was killed by a US rocket in Kabul last year, the UN report said.
In addition, the UN report said, the Sunni Islamist Al Qaeda is sensitive to the issue of Al Adel residing in largely Shiite Iran.
“His 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 [ISIS],” the UN report said.
Al Adel, 62, is a former Egyptian special forces lieutenant colonel and figure from the old guard of Al Qaeda.
He helped build the group's operational capacity and trained some of the hijackers who took part in 9/11, the US Counter Extremism Project said.
He has been in Iran since 2002 or 2003, at first under house arrest but later free enough to make trips to Pakistan, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI counter-terrorism investigator.