Al Qaeda No. 3 Killed

Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a founder and top leader of al Qaeda, has been killed.

ABC News‘ Jake Tapper and George Stephanopoulos:

US officials tell ABC News that al Qaeda’s No. 3 — Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid, known as Shaikh Sa’id al-Masri and Mustafa Abu al-Yazid — has been killed. Al Qaeda released a eulogy of Shaikh Sa’id tonight, officials said. “Word is spreading in extremist circles of the death of Sheikh Sa’id al-Masri, widely viewed as the number three figure in al-Qaeda,” a US official told ABC News. “We have strong reason to believe that’s true, and that al-Masri was killed recently in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In terms of counterterrorism, this would be a big victory.”

US officials believed him to have been killed about a week ago in Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are the spiritual founders, and considered No. 1 and No. 2 of al Qaeda list, but Shaikh Sa’id is considered the link between those two and rest of the operation, and for all intents and purposes the one running the organization day to day. “Al-Masri was the group’s chief operating officer,” the official said, “with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning. He was also the organization’s prime conduit to Bin Ladin and Zawahiri. He was key to al-Qaeda’s command and control.”

Shaikh Sa’id is the senior most al Qaeda official killed under President Obama, the officials said. An Egyptian, Shaikh Sa’id was formerly the chief financial officer of al Qaeda. The Sept. 11 Commission said that internally he argued against the 9/11 attacks “because he feared the U.S. response to an attack.”

Three years ago, Al Jazeera ran a tape of Shaikh Sa’id presenting himself as the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. He’s been promoted since then as those above him have been killed off.

The official said Shaikh Sa’id’s “death would be a major blow to al-Qaeda, which in December lost both its internal and external operations chiefs.” (A reference to the killings of Abdullah Said and Saleh al-Somali, respectively.)

NYT‘s Eric Schmitt adds:

“His death will only be a severe curse by his life upon the infidels,” Al Qaeda said in a statement issued to jihadist Web sites and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors statements by jihadists.

A United States official said American intelligence analysts believed the statement from Al Qaeda was accurate. They said the death of Mr. Yazid, also known as Saeed al-Masri, was a significant setback to Al Qaeda’s ability to help plan and support cross-border attacks against American and allied forces in Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Mr. Yazid was killed on May 22 in a drone attack in North Waziristan, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said on Tuesday. The official said he was in the village of Boya, about 16 miles along a dirt track west from Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, when the missile struck.

Mr. Yazid was considered to be the overall commander for al Qaeda for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the official said.

“In terms of counterterrorism, this would be a big victory,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Al-Masri was the group’s chief operating officer, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning. He was also the organization’s prime conduit to bin Laden and Zawahri.”

Schmitt notes:

The C.I.A. has previously killed many of Mr. Yazid’s predecessors in Al Qaeda’s No. 3 slot. Mr. Yazid was reported to have been killed by an airstrike in Pakistan before, in August 2008, only to reemerge and resume his operations.

Indeed, there was a point some years back when it was a running dark joke that al Qaeda must have a lot of “number 3” officials, as so many have been killed.   But it’s worth noting that it has now been quite some time since the organization launched a major, successful attack.   While the group seems to have no difficulty replacing its foot soldiers, there may be limits to the number of competent planners it can produce, especially when under constant surveillance and assault from U.S. military and intelligence forces.

And, yes, this marks the upside of the controversial drone strikes that many of us deride as doing more harm than good because of the propensity for killing non-combatants.   We are doubtless killing quite a few of the worst of the worst this way, too, and it’s not altogether clear we could do this as effectively using commandos and other more precise assets.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    “there may be limits to the number of competent planners”

    Thank God for small favors. And unmanned drones in Pakistan.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Al Qaeda #3’s are the red shirts of terrorism.

  3. #3 is dead! Long live #3!

  4. roac says:

    Al Qaeda #3’s are the red shirts of terrorism.

    Or the Spinal Tap drummers,

    But how long before Al-Q figures out how to defeat the threat by going directly from No. 2 to No. 4 on the TOE? The way hotels didn’t used to have 13th floors?