By Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A08
The death of al-Qaeda's third-ranking leader in a drone strike was portrayed by U.S. officials Tuesday as a severe setback to the terrorist organization. But if history is any guide, the network will have no problem replacing him.
On at least 10 occasions in the past decade, al-Qaeda has sustained the loss of a senior operative described at some point as the No. 3 figure in its hierarchy. Each time, the group has moved quickly to appoint a successor, demonstrating a resilience that has enabled it to survive a dozen years of open warfare with the United States and defy repeated predictions of its demise.
Al-Qaeda, it seems, has gotten used to filling the No. 3 spot, an especially high-risk job that involves overseeing terrorism plots, recruiting, raising money and providing internal security.
"They know they're going to be hit and they've planned somehow for it," said Barbara Sude, a former al-Qaeda analyst at the CIA who now works as a political scientist at the Rand Corp. "We just don't know what the bench is, or how deep."
The latest man to fill the job, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a 54-year-old Egyptian, perished in a May 21 missile strike in North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area where many al-Qaeda leaders have taken refuge, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, as well as an Internet statement al-Qaeda released Monday.
His purported predecessors in the No. 3 position included Abu Laith al-Libi, who died in a drone attack in Pakistan in January 2008; Hamza Rabia, an Egyptian who was killed in a Predator strike in December 2005; and Abu Faraj al-Libi, another Libyan who was captured by Pakistani security forces six months earlier and handed over to the CIA.
Others who have held the job include Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, who is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Muhammad Atef, an Egyptian who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in November 2001 in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
In each case, U.S. officials characterized the losses as a major blow to al-Qaeda and an indication of the organization's weakened state. Yazid's death resulted in more of the same.
"We welcome his demise," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. President Obama was informed about Yazid's killing Monday, officials said. According to Gibbs, this particular No. 3 was described by John O. Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, as "the biggest target to be either killed or captured in five years."
Some U.S. officials said Yazid had a broader role and greater influence than any of his predecessors, and may be more difficult to replace. His background was in financing al-Qaeda and its operations, but over time he took on responsibilities for operational planning, propaganda, and managing the organization's relationship with its burgeoning network of affiliates and partners, such as the Taliban.
"This guy had a much broader portfolio," said a senior U.S. official. He was also a conduit to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
U.S. officials said Yazid also probably had a hand in the attack on a CIA operating base in Afghanistan late last year. The plot appears to have been organized by the Taliban, but it employed a suicide bomber from Jordan who set up the deadly meeting with CIA operatives after convincing the agency that he had direct access to al-Qaeda's leaders.
Just days after seven CIA employees were killed, Yazid issued a statement effectively taking credit.
U.S. officials said Yazid used his position to try to restore some of al-Qaeda's hierarchical structure and influence over affiliated groups.
He had an "authoritarian style, tried to bring back a degree of control," said a U.S. official with access to intelligence reports on the network. At times, the official said, Yazid "rubbed people the wrong way inside the group."
Although Yazid had been reported killed before, Monday marked the first time his death had been announced in an al-Qaeda communique. On Tuesday, two Pakistani security officials and a Taliban commander in the tribal areas said they believed Yazid was among 10 people killed in the May 21 drone strike in Saidabad, a village in the Datta Khel subdivision of North Waziristan. The al-Qaeda statement said Yazid's wife, children and granddaughter were also killed.
Since Obama took office in January 2009, there have been 90 drone attacks in Pakistan, compared with 44 during President George W. Bush's second term, according to figures compiled by the New America Foundation.
Obama administration officials have said their counterterrorism strategy is working against al-Qaeda, reducing the core numbers of the group to a few hundred. But others have cautioned against too much optimism.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and adviser to Obama on his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said estimates of al-Qaeda's remaining personnel are unreliable. "Don't believe it," he said in a speech at the Jamestown Foundation in April. "We don't have any clue how many there are."
And although U.S. officials describe al-Qaeda as a diminished foe, they said there is a realization they cannot defeat radical Islamist groups with force alone.
Said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official: "Whenever the top people in the administration get together and look at the terrorism phenomenon, they come to the same conclusion, which is we are not going to shoot our way out of this."
Correspondent Karin Brulliard in Kabul and staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.