What does new Al Qaeda leader have in common with Bin Laden (besides being a killer)? Read on


Former Egyptian special forces officer Saif al-Adel may find Osama Bin Laden’s sandals too big to fill, but he shares at least one trait with the man he is succeeding as leader of Al Qaeda: a passion for soccer.

Mohamed Abdel Rahman, a former Egyptian fighter in Afghanistan and the son of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in the United States for the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, recalls in an interview with CNN playing soccer with Adel in Pakistan in 2002.

“We played football with a group of fellow jihadists, then had lunch before I left,” Abdel Rahman said. “He was a really good football player, sharp and fast.”

Reports from Pakistan last week said that Adel had been appointed to succeed Bin Laden, who was killed earlier this month by US Navy Seals, as caretaker leader of Al Qaeda.

Adel has been indicted in the United States for involvement in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He is believed to have trained al Qaeda cells in Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan.

Adel shares a passion for soccer with a host of militant Islamists leaders and is believed to understand the bonding and recruitment value of soccer that has served the militants well going back to the US-backed Islamist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Foreigners who fought in Afghanistan alongside the Afghan mujahedeen organized soccer matches after the Soviet withdrawal to maintain contact.

The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played soccer together and a number of Hamas suicide bombers traced their roots to the same football club in the conservative West Bank town of Hebron. Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian-supported militia-cum-political party designated terrorists by the US Treasury, funds at least one of Lebanon’s most successful clubs.

“A reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends. It’s surprising how many soccer buddies join together,” says University of Michigan professor Scott Atran.

Detainees in Guantanamo Bay rooted for their 2010 World Cup favorites and have a soccer field in Camp 4, the prison’s minimum-security facility. Inmates were rewarded in 2006 for good behavior by being allowed to watch tapes of Saudi Arabia’s matches in the World Cup in Germany.

Bin Laden was said to have enjoyed playing center forward and was reported to be an Arsenal fan. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh played defense for one of the Gaza’s local clubs and employed soccer in efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and its secular rivals in Fatah.

Soccer is nonetheless unlikely to be sufficient for Adel to fill the void created by Bin Laden’s death. He is reported to be highly educated and have a good command of English but unable to match Bin Laden’s charisma, oratory skills and fundraising capability.

While he brings significant military knowledge and experience to the job, he lacks the aura that surrounded Bin Laden of a man who gave up a life of wealth and luxury to dedicate his life to a cause.

Adel moreover is believed to have been under house arrest in Iran for nine years before returning only last year to the Al Qaeda fold in Pakistan.

(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])