For the moment, Muhammad Ibrahim Makawi is still far from a household name. Outside of a small corpus of terrorism experts and national security specialists, few people are familiar with the Egyptian-born militant who is arguably al-Qaeda's most dangerous operative. But they should be. Mounting evidence suggests that, after years of absence, Makawi—better known by his nom de guerre, Saif al-Adel ("sword of justice" in Arabic)—is back in action and spearheading a new stage in al-Qaeda's war with the West.
Comparatively little is known about al-Adel. The 47-year-old jihadist, a former military officer, is said to have cut his teeth in Egypt's volatile political scene during the 1980s. He reportedly served as a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the terror group responsible for the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. That activism made al-Adel a target of Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, and he fled Egypt for Afghanistan in 1988. There, he joined the jihad against the Soviet Union and gravitated to the terrorist conglomerate then being organized by Saudi financier Osama bin Laden and his intellectual mentor, Abdullah Azzam.
Al-Adel rose quickly through al-Qaeda's ranks. He is believed to have helped mastermind the August 7, 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands. Al-Adel is also suspected of training militants, including some of the September 11th hijackers, at camps in Afghanistan and Somalia in the late 1990s.
Then came September 11th and the U.S. response. Fleeing Coalition operations in Afghanistan, al-Adel—together with other top al-Qaeda operatives like Suleiman al-Gaith and Osama bin Laden's son, Saad—took refuge in Iran. There, he was held in a sort of protective custody for the following nine years, relegated to the sidelines of the unfolding conflict between al-Qaeda and the Western world.
All that changed earlier this year, however. This spring, al-Adel was among a number of high-value operatives released as part of a hostage swap between the Iranian regime and al-Qaeda. Al-Adel is said to have subsequently migrated to Pakistan's unruly Waziristan region, and resumed his role as al-Qaeda's military chief.
The move is more than symbolic. Al-Adel's return to the fold coincides with a larger strategic rethink taking place within the Bin Laden network. In the wake of al-Qaeda's ouster from Afghanistan following 9/11—and its subsequent, disastrous defeat in post-Saddam Iraq—a new generation of jihadist thinkers like Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah and Abu Musab al-Suri have taken stock of the organization's disarray and proposed a series of course corrections to help al-Qaeda survive, and thrive, in the new global environment.
So has al-Qaeda's prodigal son. Al-Adel is believed to have opposed the September 11th attacks, seeing the terrorist strike as too provocative and likely to elicit a devastating response from the United States. The subsequent Coalition offensive against al-Qaeda and the Taliban only served to prove him right.
Al-Adel has been seeking a reboot of al-Qaeda ever since. Half-a-decade ago, he reportedly drafted a planning document outlining a series of more targeted goals for the organization—chief among them the "establishment of a state." And now that he is a free man, al-Adel is putting his plan into action. Consistent with his vision, recent months have seen an uptick in activity on the part of two of al-Qaeda's most potent franchises. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is locked in an increasingly pitched battle with the government of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, even as it has taken time out to target Western capitals in a recent foiled parcel bomb campaign. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stepped up its campaign of kidnappings and drug trafficking in the Sahel, exploiting the region's porous borders and long-standing geopolitical rivalries to expand both its wealth and its reach. The common goals are clear: to destabilize fragile regional governments in the southern Gulf and North Africa, and then step into the resulting void.
The potential consequences cannot be overstated. "Saif al-Adel's return is probably the biggest break al-Qaida has had in a decade," Germany's Der Spiegel magazine estimates. It represents a much-needed shot in the arm for the world's most dangerous terror group—and a new challenge for all those seeking to put it out of business.