A photo enhanced via artificial intelligence of the Al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Saif Al-Adel (Improved by ’South24 Center’)

The Indications and Dimensions of the Renewed Relationship Between Ahmed Saif Al-Adel and AQAP


Fri, 21-06-2024 02:41 PM, Aden

Although Saif Al-Adel’s desire to move to Yemen faces many obstacles, especially the Iranian rejection of the idea, the future occurrence of this isn’t unlikely. The Yemeni branch has pressure cards that may force Iran to surrender.

Ibrahim Ali* (South24)

Events combine together to confirm a special relationship between the current Leader of the Al-Qaeda, Ahmed Saif Al-Adel, and the organization’s branch in Yemen (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-AQAP). The latest of these events was the AQAP’s confirmation of the death of Saif Al-Adel’s son, Khaled Saleh al-Din Zidane, 29. This was published in issue ’18‘ of Sada Al Malahem, the AQAP’s official magazine, which included an opinion article by ’Khaled Saif Al-Adel‘ who was dubbed as being “deceased”. Reports confirmed that his death was the result of a fire in his house in Wadi Obeida district in Marib governorate in March.

What makes this fact interesting are the indications related to the presence of Saif Al-Adel’s son in Yemen, and not in any other branches of the Al-Qaeda. We can deduce from this a certain perception about the new Al-Qaeda leadership’s focus on the Yemeni branch in particular as well as the real reasons behind it.

Mutual Interest 

Saif Al-Adel’s interest in the AQAP isn’t surely limited to returning the favor to this branch for freeing him from an Iranian prison as part of a prisoner exchange deal in 2015, as there is mutual interest among the two parties. In 2015, the organization made a large deal with Iran, including releasing Ahmad Nikbakht, the Cultural Attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Sanaa, in return for releasing Ahmed Saif Al-Adel. Exclusive sources told ’South24 Center‘ that the main goal behind the AQAP’s abduction of the Iranian official was to swap him with Saif Al-Adel, and that the game plan of the exchange deal was hatched prior to the kidnapping operation. This stirs questions about the AQAP’s keenness in getting Saif Al-Adel released from prison. 

Strangely, Saif Al-Adel decided to reside in Iran after being freed from prison although he could have easily moved to the Baloch areas (located at the intersection of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan) to enjoy tribal protection. Why has he stayed on in Iran after being released? 

Moving to Yemen

Iran and the Al-Qaeda initially agreed on moving Saif Al-Adel to Yemen after Ahmad Nikbakht returned to Tehran after being freed from captivity. Exclusive sources told ’South24 Center‘ that the airspace was open at that time between Yemen and Iran after the Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa in September 2014. However, the declaration of military operation ‘Decisive Storm’ in Yemen by Saudi Arabia along with the Gulf and Arab states put a stop to that.

The Arab Coalition controlled the Yemeni skies as well as most land and maritime crossings. Thus, it was difficult to carry out a big move like smuggling a prominent Al-Qaeda leader to Yemen. However, the reason was not just limited to difficulties, as Saif Al-Adel himself, after the beginning of the Saudi-led military operation, decided to wait, according to the sources. Therefore, he was forced to stay in Iran. However, reports revealed that he made another attempt to leave.

Instead of moving to Yemen, Saif Al-Adel sent his son who was an active Al-Qaeda leader. This move probably means that Saif Al-Adel had abandoned the idea of staying in Yemen, especially after he became the general Leader of the Al-Qaeda after the killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in July 2022. However, sources who are close to the organization told ’South24 Center‘ that Khaled’s arrival in Yemen paved the way for a similar move by his father.

Moreover, the presence of Saif Al-Adel’s son in Yemen reflects the interest of the al-Qaeda’s new leadership in the AQAP, in particular. This is probably due to the ability of the Yemeni branch to carry out effective operations, or a result of its strong local alliances, especially after teaming up with the Iran-backed Houthi militia and the fact that the AQAP has ceased targeting the Yemeni group for more than two years.

Likewise, the same sources indicated that Saif Al-Adel’s security concerns were behind sending his son to Yemen, especially after the infiltrations witnessed by the organization that led to the killing of many of its leaders over the past years. Other sources advance a third story -- that Saif Al-Adel urged the Iranians to allow him to move to Yemen, but this was absolutely rejected by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, fearing that he would be out of Tehran's grip and operate independently. 

Currently, after the death of his son in the Marib fire, the decision of Saif Al-Adel regarding going to Yemen is unclear, especially if he has doubts about the circumstances related to the death of his son, and that of the former AQAP Leader Khaled Batarfi. Reports suggest that the latter had been poisoned. However, Yemen certainly is important to the Al-Qaeda Leader, regardless of his presence there or not.

Why Yemen?

Although the headquarters of the Al-Qaeda’s general leadership varied between Afghanistan and Pakistan since its foundation, these two countries are no longer suitable for a leader like Ahmed Saif Al-Adel who has a high security sense. This is along with the fact that the American agreement with the Taliban included a condition of not harboring Al-Qaeda elements. For example, Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed in an American drone raid in Kabul which is controlled by the Taliban.

The killing of Al-Zawahiri inside a secure area controlled by the Taliban raises doubts. Furthermore, Pakistan is considered a hotbed for the US intelligence agencies that have close ties with their Pakistani counterparts. This tacit collaboration led to the location of the Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s hideout, and he was killed in a US operation in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. Moreover, the Al-Qaeda no longer has a large presence in these countries. 

The AQAP is likely more interested in Saif Al-Adel moving to Yemen for many considerations. These include the influence of its Egyptian wing, led by Ibrahim Al-Banna. Moreover, the Yemeni branch needs a heavyweight leader following the depletion of its leaders over the past years. In addition, Saif Al–Adel’s presence in Iran embarrasses him and his organization although this has protected him from American assassination attempts. 

However, if Saif Al-Adel failed to move personally to Yemen for reasons related to the difficulty in doing so or Iran's rejection of it, he may be able to move the Al-Qaeda’s general command center to it while remaining a shadow leader remotely. However, the death of his son, upon whom he had relied heavily, will add some complexities to the task. 


Although the death of the Al-Qaeda Leader’s son in Yemen may be unimportant in itself, it carries important indications about the nature of the relationship between the organization’s new leadership and its Yemeni branch, as well as the subsequent future moves and measures that would increase the complexity of the internal situation and raise concerns outside. 

The aforementioned circumstances and information indicate that there is much interest in moving the Al-Qaeda’s general command center to Yemen after the killing of Al-Zawahiri and the organization’s big decline in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Saif Al-Adel’s rise to power. It seems that the death of his son won’t prevent this. 

Although Saif Al-Adel’s desire to move to Yemen faces many obstacles, especially the Iranian rejection of the idea, the future occurrence of this isn’t unlikely. The Yemeni branch has pressure cards that may force Iran to surrender. These include, for example, restoring activities in the Houthi-controlled areas.

*Ibrahim Ali
Ibrahim Ali is a pseudonym of a researcher who specializes in armed group affairs. He has requested anonymity for personal reasons.

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic

YemenAQAPAl-QaedaSaif Al-AdelHouthis