Argument
An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Rupture

Could the killing of Al Qaeda's No. 3, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, sever the ties between the terrorist group and the Taliban?

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NORTH WAZIRISTAN, PAKISTAN - FEBRUARY 17: A Pakistani Army soldier stands guard at a base in Miran Shah in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area Feb. 17, 2007. NATO and the Afghan government say that Taliban and Al Qaida fighters cross into Afghanistan from the Pakistani side to stage attacks on NATO troops, especially since a peace deal was signed in September 2006 between Pakistani forces and the Taliban. The Pak military, which has some 80,000 troops stationed in the tribal areas, says the Afghan government and NATO should stop blaming Pakistan for Afghanistan's internal problems. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The killing of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the Egyptian head of al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan, in a drone strike in North Waziristan last month is undoubtedly a body blow to the terrorist organization. But, more importantly, his death might signal an end to the close ties between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban -- for it was Yazid, more than any other figure, who was the linchpin of the special relationship between the two groups.

The killing of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the Egyptian head of al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan, in a drone strike in North Waziristan last month is undoubtedly a body blow to the terrorist organization. But, more importantly, his death might signal an end to the close ties between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban — for it was Yazid, more than any other figure, who was the linchpin of the special relationship between the two groups.

Yazid, one of al Qaeda’s founders, the veteran head of its finance committee, and the organizational head of operations in Afghanistan, is the most senior figure in the terrorist group to be killed since Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, Mohammed Atef, the longstanding Egyptian operational commander, was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But Yazid will not primarily be missed because of his operational value to al Qaeda or his military acumen. He built his reputation as al Qaeda’s moneyman and bin Laden’s chief administrator, not as a strategist or fighter. The main reason Yazid’s loss is such a setback to al Qaeda is because of his close and enduring ties to Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban.

"Nobody within al Qaeda had better relations with Mullah Omar and the Taliban than Yazid," Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who knew Yazid and last met him in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in 2000, told me. "At a time when the Taliban is questioning its relationship with al Qaeda, this is a great loss for al Qaeda."

In the last year, Mullah Omar has begun to start untangling himself from his association with al Qaeda, calculating that loosening the knot might make Taliban’s return to a position of power in Afghanistan more palatable to the key players in the region, according to sources aware of the content of talks between representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government. The July 2009 directive to issue a new code of conduct for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s more recent rhetoric about their struggle being local rather than international are both elements of this new strategy.

So far, Mullah Omar has refused to repudiate al Qaeda or promise to keep the terrorist organization out of Afghanistan if the Taliban were to return to a position of power, likely the absolute minimum demands of the United States in any future negotiated settlement for Afghanistan. In part, this was due to his long and close relationship with Yazid.

Without Yazid to make the case, however, al Qaeda is in a much-weakened position to argue against such concessions. According to Benotman, Yazid was almost certainly appointed as the head of al Qaeda’s Afghanistan operations in 2007 to nurture the terrorist group’s relationship with the Taliban rather than because of any military rationale. "He was really connected to them, and it was crucial for al Qaeda to find somebody to fill this role. Ayman al-Zawahiri [al Qaeda’s No. 2] can’t do this because he doesn’t have those relationships." In this light, the drone strike that killed Yazid might be seen as a major success: The loss of Taliban support would be nothing less than a strategic disaster for al Qaeda, calling into question its ability to operate in Afghanistan and ending its hopes of once again using the country as a base for its international operations.

But how did Yazid come to foster such close ties? His jihadi career, like those of so many others at the top levels of al Qaeda, began in Egypt. Born in 1955 in Sharqiya on the eastern side of the Nile Delta, Yazid became involved in the 1970s in Islamist circles linked to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group. After the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad in 1981, Yazid and hundreds of other members of the group — including Zawahiri — were imprisoned under exceptionally harsh conditions by the Egyptian government, contributing toward their hardening into life-long terrorists.

Released after three years in jail, Yazid moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1987, where he joined up with Zawahiri, who had relaunched a branch of Egyptian Islamic Jihad there. In Peshawar, Yazid met bin Laden and forged an exceptionally close bond with the Saudi millionare-jihadist, helping him launch al Qaeda in 1988 as an Arab force dedicated to defending Muslim lands. It was only 10 years later that Zawahiri formally allied himself with bin Laden.

Yazid became bin Laden’s principal bookkeeper, managing the internal administration of al Qaeda, its fundraising activities, and the payment of salaries to fighters. After the group’s top leadership decamped to Sudan in the early 1990s, Yazid also helped bin Laden administer his extensive business interests there and managed the disbursement of funds to jihadi groups. At that point, he became known in jihadi circles as Sheikh Saeed al-Muhasseb ("the accountant") and developed a reputation as a shrewd, quiet, and efficient man, well respected by his peers. When he moved to Afghanistan in the late 1990s — now a member of a terrorist organization intent on targeting the United States — Yazid forged close ties to the Taliban and emerged as a key go-between between bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

In the run-up to 9/11, knowing that Mullah Omar opposed al Qaeda attacks on the United States, Yazid tried to dissuade bin Laden from launching the operation. According to the 9/11 Commission report, Yazid also feared the U.S. response to an attack. But Yazid was an al Qaeda loyalist, and though he feared that the operation might jeopardize the Taliban government in Afghanistan, he ultimately went along with bin Laden’s decision, according to a former jihadist with knowledge of al Qaeda’s internal deliberations at the time.

The die was cast. As Mullah Omar and the al Qaeda leadership went into hiding, Yazid began to emerge as a central figure. His coming-out party was in May 2007, when he appeared in a video after his appointment as the head of al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan. True to type, he insisted in that video that "funding is the mainstay of jihad." In the years that followed, Yazid became one of al Qaeda’s most visible spokesmen, attracting headlines in 2009 after promising in an Al Jazeera interview that the terrorist group would use Pakistani nuclear weapons against the United States if it could get hold of them. And in January, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm released a widely seen video featuring Yazid, in which he took credit for the joint al Qaeda-Pakistani Taliban operation that killed seven CIA operatives in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009. U.S. intelligence officials believe Yazid probably played a role in planning that attack.

Yazid, according to officials, had grown in his operational role within al Qaeda, though by all accounts he continued to maintain his managerial role, overseeing relations between al Qaeda and other jihadi groups. This multitasking was likely due to necessity as much as anything: A significant number of al Qaeda’s operational commanders have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. (Altogether, more than 20 senior al Qaeda operatives have been killed since the CIA intensified its campaign in 2008, according to a count by the New America Foundation.)

Yazid’s new operational role appears to have included plotting terrorist attacks in the United States. According to a recent CNN documentary, he was one of the al Qaeda leaders that the "American al Qaeda" recruit, Bryant Neal Vinas, met with after he joined the terrorist group in North Waziristan in March 2008. Vinas has admitted that he helped al Qaeda’s leaders plan a bomb attack on the Long Island Rail Road in New York. Yazid is also believed to have had a role in the plot by Najibullah Zazi, a Denver limousine driver, to bomb subway cars in New York City last September.

The missing link

With Zawahiri going deeper into hiding and bin Laden still deep underground, Yazid was at the time of his death in de facto control of al Qaeda’s day-to-day operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism sources. Last June, when al Qaeda needed more funds because of shortages in weapons and other supplies for fighters in Afghanistan, it was Yazid, not Zawahiri, who made the appeal, likely because it was judged too risky for Zawahiri to surface to make the recording. The same might have been true for Yazid’s claim of responsibility for the CIA Khost attack.

According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, Yazid might have been one of the very few people in al Qaeda with the ability to communicate with bin Laden and Zawahiri. According a former jihadist I spoke with, such communication was likely to have taken place through a system of couriers to minimize the risk to al Qaeda’s top two leaders. But the successful targeting of Yazid will likely curtail all but the most crucial conversation for the near term and make Zawahiri even more cautious before releasing videos and communicating with operatives.

Although Yazid’s death is a victory for the United States in its fight against al Qaeda, the fact that he was killed in North Waziristan, an area that in recent years has emerged as the epicenter for al Qaeda’s plots against the West, demonstrates the continued danger posed by the terrorist safe haven along the Afghan border. In recent months, there had been suggestions from some quarters that al Qaeda’s top brass had moved out of the area because of the pressure from drone strikes. But Yazid’s presence in North Waziristan suggests that senior al Qaeda figures continue to operate in the tribal areas. In some ways, his successful targeting runs counter to current trends. Testimony from Western militants who recently traveled to the area and were subsequently arrested suggests that al Qaeda has to some degree successfully adapted its operations to protect itself from such strikes. According to the New America count, only half as many al Qaeda leaders were killed by drone strikes in 2009 as in 2008.

As successful as drones have been, they are becoming less so — and are no panacea. To date, the Pakistani military has not launched operations to clear North Waziristan of pro-al Qaeda militants on anything like the scale it did in neighboring South Waziristan in the fall of 2009. The United States will need to redouble its diplomatic efforts to persuade Pakistan that such actions are in its own self-interest. Many of the violent attacks carried out by the Pakistani Taliban across Pakistan in the last two years are believed to have been orchestrated from North Waziristan, including deadly attacks on mosques and a hospital in Lahore in the last week. It was from the same area that the group orchestrated an attempted car bombing of Times Square last month.

But while the Pakistani Taliban, from their base in the tribal areas in the northwest, are increasingly operating in tandem with al Qaeda and plotting attacks overseas, the Afghan Taliban, headquartered in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, have been signaling they might be ready to jettison bin Laden. Yazid’s death will make that choice all the more palatable to Mullah Omar, who is not incapable of realpolitik and does not now have bin Laden as his guest. With no military solution for Afghanistan in sight, the moment may be right for the United States to further encourage Afghan President Hamid Karzai in reaching out to the Afghan Taliban and to back higher-level talks between the two sides.

Yazid’s death may be a severe blow to al Qaeda’s ties to the Afghan Taliban and the hope of a return to safe refuge there, but when it comes to launching attacks in the West, as long as al Qaeda operatives have a safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, there will unfortunately be no end to the ambitious up-and-coming terrorists who can take his place. That makes it all the more necessary to further isolate al Qaeda, both from its former allies in Afghanistan and from the territory in which it can train recruits for new attacks in the West.

Paul Cruickshank, an alumni fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, is currently working on a CNN series on the U.S. domestic terrorism threat.

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