SANAA, Yemen, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- The key suspect in the Yemen mail bombs plot is Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a top al-Qaida bomb maker but the conspiracy bears the fingerprints of a more senior figure recently released by Iran after nine years of "house arrest."
Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army Special Forces colonel and onetime al-Qaida military chief, was reported in October to be in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.
Osama bin laden and al-Qaida's core leadership are believed to be holed up in the same region.
The word is that Saif al-Adel got his old job back and is once again running al-Qaida's international operations, along with another seasoned al-Qaida veteran also freed by Tehran, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden's sons.
"It is almost certain that Saif al-Adel … is currently in the Pakistani province of North Waziristan and is operating as al-Qaida's chief," says Noman Benotman, a Libyan analyst at the Quilliam Foundation think tank in London.
Western intelligence sources support this contention by Benotman, who was an al-Qaida instructor in Afghanistan until he defected in 2002.
Adel, aka Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi, fled to Iran from Afghanistan with other al-Qaida cadres when the Americans invaded in October 2001. There they were supposedly placed under house arrest, although their status was never very clear.
U.S. officials insist these operatives remained active and had close relationships with commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, particularly its clandestine branch, the al-Quds Force.
Adel, Saad bin Laden and his younger brother Mohammed reportedly lived in the same government guest house in Tehran for several years.
But Saad's departure from Iran, along with a dozen al-Qaida figures in 2009 indicated the Iranians were loosening whatever restrictions they may have imposed on their "guests."
Just what's going on remains murky. But Syed Saleem Shahzad, Islamabad correspondent of Asia Times Online, who has close contacts with Pakistan's Sunni jihadists, recently reported that the catalyst for this unusual cooperation occurred Nov. 13, 2008.
That was the day Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, commercial attache at the Iranian consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, was abducted by militants. No ransom was demanded, which was unusual. Tehran sought Pakistan's help but nothing happened. Then in mid-2009, Tehran approached Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani in Waziristan who has strong ties with al-Qaida's tribal allies.
According to Shahzad, al-Qaida allowed Attarzadeh to telephone his family and in return Tehran let its al-Qaida "captives" talk to their people.
Tehran later gave Haqqani several dozen advanced anti-aircraft guns to fire at U.S. drones that were killing Taliban and al-Qaida leaders. On March 30, 2010, Attarzadeh was handed over to Iranian agents.
Shahzad noted in April, "The deals to have Attarzadeh released … may prove to be more far-reaching than ever imagined."
This has raised suspicions of an alliance of convenience between Shiites and Sunnis, despite centuries of bitter and often bloody religious rivalry, against the Americans.
But it also suggests that al-Qaida, increasingly concerned as its senior and mid-level chiefs were being killed by the Americans, wanted to get top-echelon veterans like Adel and Abu Hafs back in the game and was prepared to make a deal with Iran.
The parameters of whatever that deal was, and where it will lead, are still not clear.
Shahzad says al-Qaida's leadership was disturbed by U.S. efforts to open negotiations with the Taliban and needed to consolidate, putting veterans like Adel and Abu Hafs back in the game as planners, coordinators and field commanders.
"In the face of al-Qaida's losses … al-Qaida decided to embrace them for operations" Shahzad noted in an Oct. 30 report.
"Adel is likely to be the new face of al-Qaida in 2011, with operations emanating in Pakistan and spreading to Somalia, Yemen and Turkey to pitch operations in Europe and India."
In a later report, Shahzad observed that with Adel at the helm, al-Qaida is likely to "focus on relatively low-intensity terror attacks around the world rather than big missions such as the Sept. 11, 2001, assault."
It should be noted that according to captured al-Qaida figures interrogated by the Americans, Adel had opposed bin Laden's 9/11 operation. He argued it would provoke a withering response from the United States that would damage al-Qaida and in that he has been largely correct.