Yes, it’s an Egyptian, but not the one you think. In fact, this guy may be more significant than Zawahiri.

An Egyptian who was once a Special Forces officer has been appointed “caretaker” leader of al Qaeda in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, according to a source with detailed knowledge of the group’s inner workings.

Al Qaeda’s interim leader is Saif al-Adel, who has long played a prominent role in the group, according to Noman Benotman…

However, he said, the choice of an Egyptian may not sit well with some Saudi and Yemeni members of al Qaeda, who believe bin Laden’s successor should come from the Arabian Peninsula, a region that is holy to all Muslims. Bin Laden was from a wealthy Saudi family.

The presumed successor to bin Laden is his long-time deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is also Egyptian. Benotman, who has long been a reliable source of information about al Qaeda, said the temporary appointment of al-Adel may be a way for the leadership to gauge reaction to the appointment of someone from beyond the Arabian Peninsula as the group’s leader.

Appointing an Egyptian is a smart way symbolically for AQ to inject itself into the Arab Spring, especially if/when Islamists take power in Cairo. His nationality plus his former career in the Egyptian military might give him more of an audience in the country than Zawahiri would have. Beyond that, though, al-Adel is noteworthy among Al Qaeda’s upper echelon for where he spent most of the past decade. Unlike Bin Laden and Zawahiri, he wasn’t in hiding; he was in Iran, having journeyed there shortly after 9/11 and then, allegedly, been put under house arrest by the regime for most of the next 10 years. In 2007, WaPo reported that Iran had actually offered him to the U.S. as part of a prisoner swap in 2003 and Bush, on Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s advice, reportedly refused. Last year, as nuclear tensions between the U.S. and Iran ratcheted up, new reports came out about Iran releasing some or all of the top AQ capos in its possession; no one knows for sure if al-Adel has been set free to return to Pakistan or if he’s still in Iran right now. (Given Bin Laden’s fate, he’s probably safer with the mullahs.) Here’s a sensational story from the Telegraph written in 2006 passing along rumors of al-Adel’s newfound chumminess with his alleged “captors”:

For the past five years he has been living in a Revolutionary Guards guest house in Teheran together with Saad and Mohammed bin Laden, two of the al-Qa’eda leader’s sons.

Until 2003, al-Adel acted as bin Laden’s security chief and since his arrival in Iran he is understood to have struck up a close personal relationship with several prominent Revolutionary Guards commanders.

The Iranians are now exerting pressure on al-Qa’eda’s leadership to make al-Adel the organisation’s number three which, given bin Laden’s poor state of health, would effectively make him number two. This would put him in a strong position to take control of the entire al-Qa’eda network in the event of Zawahiri being killed or being unable to continue running the group.

“This is an important power play by the Iranians and the prospect of al-Qa’eda and Iran forging a close alliance is truly terrifying,” said a senior Western intelligence official. “They have had their differences in the past, but with the survival of both Iran and al-Qa’eda now at stake they realise it is in both their interests to have closer ties.”

The left will sneer at the suggestion of Iran/AQ cooperation, partly out of loyalty to their long-held, painfully stupid insistence that Sunni and Shiite fanatics won’t work together (ask Hamas about that) and partly because they know it bolsters the case for military action against Iran. Just two weeks ago, though, the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus released an outside report alleging deepening ties between Iran and AQ. A taste:

In its report to the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus, the strategic advisory firm Kronos highlighted what it says are increasingly strong links between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps force and Al-Qaeda…

The ties date back to the 1990s when Al-Quds members worked with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to train and equip bin Laden’s holy warriors. He cites the 9/11 Commission Report for operational linkages between the two.

“Since 9/11, these partnerships have become all the more pronounced. Hundreds of al-Qaeda members, along with family members of core al-Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, have found refuge inside Iran,” he wrote.

Tom Joscelyn has written at length about cooperation between Iran and Al Qaeda as well. Maybe that’s overstated or maybe al-Adel is fully prepared to turn his back on the Shiite apostates in Tehran, but if ever there was a moment where AQ might be willing to cooperate with them, this is surely it. They’re reeling from Bin Laden’s death and they’re in grave danger of seeing the network unravel as the U.S. follows up on leads gleaned from OBL’s computer data. (A major arrest was made in Pakistan just today, in fact.) They need somewhere safer to hide and, especially, they need money and material with their inspirational figurehead/fundraiser now at the bottom of the ocean. If they’re willing to deal with Iran and Iran is willing to deal with them, al-Adel would be the natural choice to serve as leader and liaison. Time to move him up to the top of the SEALs’ list of people who need killin’.