By the time he died in May 2011, Usama bin Ladin had already identified his successor. Under the terms of his organization’s 2001 merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the former leader of EIJ Ayman al-Zawahiri was to be the next emir of al-Qa`ida. But before al-Zawahiri could formally take office, he needed pledges of allegiance (bayat) from the members of its governing council. Al-Zawahiri did not collect those pledges himself; to finish the job, the organization needed someone whose credentials and loyalty were unimpeachable. It turned to a man who had been there since the very beginning, and who had been a leading figure almost as long: the Egyptian former commando named Saif al-`Adl.
Since 2002 or 2003, Saif had been based in Iran. While there, his status shifted periodically. Sometimes he was detained in prison, sometimes under varying forms of house arrest. Toward the end of 2010, he had been allowed to travel back to Waziristan in northern Pakistan, where al-Qa`ida then had its hub. In May 2011, Saif enjoyed enough liberty to act as interim leader of al-Qa`ida, the organization to which he had given the past 22 years of his life.
Many in al-Qa`ida probably wished his appointment could be made permanent; for while Saif and al-Zawahiri were both Egyptians, al-Qa`ida’s membership saw them in very different lights. As this article will show, Saif was a loyal member, a military and intelligence leader who had helped transform al-Qa`ida from a loose band of former anti-Soviet militiamen into the world’s most deadly terrorist organization. Al-Zawahiri, by contrast, was an interloper, the failed leader of a group that, by the time it merged with al-Qa`ida, had only around 10 members left.