The Iranian government has released five senior members of al Qaeda earlier this year, including the man who stepped in to lead the terrorist group immediately after Osama bin Laden’s death, according to a U.S. official briefed on the matter.
The five men were released as part of a prisoner swap in March with al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen where the terror group holds an Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, The New York Times reported.
The American official confirmed one of the newly released men was Saif al-Adel, a senior member of al Qaeda’s ruling body, known as the Shura Council, who oversaw the organization immediately after bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011.
The former colonel in the Egyptian military, believed to be in his 50s, is also listed on the FBI’s most wanted terror list and was indicted in the 1998 United States Embassy bombings in East Africa. The Department of Justice has offered a $5 million bounty for him.
Intelligence experts say Mr. Adel is considered one of al Qaeda’s founding fathers and could help reunite the faltering organization, which has recently lost much of its leadership in U.S. airstrikes and many of its recruits to the more media savvy Islamic State.
“If the organization is having internal issues, he is someone that could bring it together,” said Cynthia Storer, who was the CIA’s first full-time analyst dedicated to tracking bin Laden and al Qaeda, the Times reported.
In a statement on Thursday, the Iranian government denied that the five men had been freed.
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