Three Is the Loneliest Number

What does the killing of al Qaeda's No. 3, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, mean for Osama bin Laden?


The death of Mustafa Ahmed Mohammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid, also known as Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, al Qaeda’s operational commander in Afghanistan, in a drone attack in Pakistan last month is a significant but not fatal setback for the group — and another sign that the Obama administration’s stepped-up pressure is having a real impact and disrupting the group’s activities. Al Qaeda announced his death in a message released on May 31 — and though the terrorist group is hurting, it is likely far from being on the ropes.

A bit of background: Yazid was an Egyptian close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s "No. 2." He was involved, like Zawahiri, in the plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat in 1981 and, following their release from prison in the mid-1980s, the two created the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. That group merged with al Qaeda in 1998, and since then Yazid has worked as a fundraiser and has appeared often as a spokesman and commentator. He was actively involved in planning the September 11, 2001, attacks.

According to some reports, he was also al Qaeda’s third-highest ranking officer. If so, then he is (by my count) the seventh individual identified by U.S. intelligence as al Qaeda’s "No. 3" since 2001 who has been killed or captured. Being No. 3 is clearly a dangerous job. For its part, al Qaeda itself has never identified anyone as the third man in its chain of command, and most likely there is more than one individual, at any one time, who reports to Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden directly.

Whether or not he was No. 3, Yazid was a key al Qaeda operative. Yazid was likely involved in al Qaeda’s plot last year to attack the New York City metro system with three suicide bombers at rush hour on the Monday after the 9/11 anniversary. Two Afghan-Americans have pleaded guilty to that plot and have said they were being directed by al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

And, in his role as chief of operations in Afghanistan, Yazid would have been directly involved in the planning of the Dec. 30 suicide-bomber attack on the CIA’s forward operating base in Khost, which killed six officers and a senior Jordanian intelligence officer. In terms of loss of life, it was the second-worst day in CIA history, but as far as operational readiness was affected, it clearly did not interrupt drone strikes significantly.

But drones, like the one that killed Yazid, are only one part of Barack Obama’s strategy to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" al Qaeda — and the U.S. president is far from achieving that goal. At best, the new pressure is impacting the terrorists’ operational tempo, but has not stopped them from planning and staging attacks on U.S. targets.

One example is Zawahiri himself. Since December, he has appeared only once in al Qaeda’s propaganda output, a brief message last month eulogizing the death of two senior al Qaeda commanders in Iraq. Before this year, Zawahiri was a frequent commentator on al Qaeda audio and video messages, often appearing every other week. His absence is probably related to the Khost attack: He was the bait that al Qaeda dangled before the CIA operatives — a prize so tempting that routine procedures were overlooked, allowing a suicide bomber fatal access to the base. Zawahiri’s absence from the airwaves has been noted in the jihadi underworld, but his ability to direct attacks on U.S. and Western targets has likely been diminished only slightly.

As for bin Laden, the most wanted man in history and the target of the largest manhunt ever conducted, CIA drones have not yet been able to get close to him, either. The last time U.S. intelligence had eyes on al Qaeda’s No. 1 was in 2001. For almost nine years since then, he has been off the radar — avoiding telephones, using trusted couriers to send messages, and receiving protection from powerful interests. But he has appeared in four audio messages so far this year, so reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Thus, though Yazid’s death is a significant scalp, both bin Laden and Zawahiri are still very much active. The drones will not defeat al Qaeda by themselves. Nor are they intended to; Obama’s strategy uses them as one tool in a broader diplomatic and military offensive. But this campaign, which is showing signs of progress, has a long way to go yet.

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