Mustafa Abu Yazid from an al Qaeda tape released on Oct. 4, 2008. Pakistan claimed Yazid was killed in a battle in Bajaur during the summer of 2008.
The US airstrike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan may have killed a senior al Qaeda operative. But the reports may be confusing one of al Qaeda’s senior-most leaders with a senior explosives trainer and expert.
The attack, launched earlier today at a compound in Spalaga near Mir Ali, killed three al Qaeda operatives, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
The report changed much later in the day, when Pakistani officials claimed an explosion inside the compound, and not a US strike, caused the deaths. But US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal confirmed that the US carried out the attack inside Pakistan.
The officials said Pakistan changed the story from a Predator strike to a detonation inside the house because the attack occurred in North Waziristan. News of a US strike in North Waziristan might endanger the Pakistan’s Army’s truce with Hafiz Gul Bahadar. The Army cut a deal with Bahadar to ensure that his Taliban forces would not attack the military as it uses the tribal area to shuttle men and supplies to the offensive in neighboring South Waziristan.
A report at Dawn later surfaced that an al Qaeda operative known as Abu Musa al Misri (or Abu Musa al Masri) was killed in the attack. According to a senior US military intelligence official, Abu Musa al Masri is in fact a senior al Qaeda explosive expert and trainer.
Dawn then identified the al Qaeda commander as Abu al Masri and Mustafa al Yazid – who is better known as Mustafa Abu Yazid and Sheikh Saeed al Masri. Yazid is al Qaeda’s top commander in Afghanistan and serves as the equivalent of al Qaeda’s chief financial officer. He personally withdraws funds from al Qaeda’s treasury, the Bayt al Mal, which was known to be based in Jani Khel in Bannu.
US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal would not confirm the death of a senior al Qaeda leader but said they were aware of the reports and are investigating.
“It is too soon to know, and as the last few years have shown, even when we think they are dead, they don’t always stay dead,” one official said.
Most recently, US and Pakistani intelligence officials were certain Ilyas Kashmiri, a longtime Pakistani jihadi and a senior al Qaeda operative, was killed. Kashmiri later granted an interview with the Asia Times.
Yazid was also reported to have been killed during the summer of 2008 but later came back to life.
The Pakistani military claimed Yazid was killed in a battle in the Bajaur tribal agency. The Long War Journal was highly critical of the reports of Yazid’s death. Al Qaeda never confirmed Yazid’s death, and the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies never presented evidence he was killed. Yazid has since appeared on multiple videotapes, including the Oct. 4, 2008, propaganda video that featured Adam Gadahn, the US al Qaeda propagandist.
Press appears to be confusing Abu Musa with Yazid
While Dawn is reporting that Abu Musa and Yazid are the same person, these are in fact two different al Qaeda leaders. The media often confuses the numerous al Masris operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Afghanistan. Both Yazid and Abu Musa are Egyptians from Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Two additional factors may be contributing to Dawn’s mix-up of Abu Musa with Yazid.
First, both Yazid and Abu Musa are rumored to have had contact with Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan al Qaeda operative who has been arrested in the US for plotting to carry out backpack bombings in the States.
Zazi is known to have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to receive training on how to mix the explosives and build the backpack bombs. Zazi very likely received instructions from Abu Musa, US officials told The Long War Journal.
Yazid also is reported to have been in contact with Zazi, according to The Associated Press. [Note the AP later retracted its story that intelligence officials knew of indirect contact between Zazi and Yazid. US officials contacted by The Long War Journal believe that Yazid could have spoken to Zazi but this has not been confirmed.]
“If this is true, Yazid would have given Zazi instructions and advice,” a senior official told The Long War Journal. “But he wouldn’t have been providing instruction on the making of bombs. Yazid has underlings to do that.”
Second, the latest report from Dawn indicated that the explosion at the compound was caused by the detonation of a suicide vest as it was being assembled. Dawn said that Yazid may have been killed assembling the vest, but as noted, Yazid does not perform such tasks.
“It is possible that Yazid may have been killed during a demonstration, but if suicide vests were involved, more likely than not Abu Musa al Masri was involved,” the senior official said. “But this is moot as the US carried out the drone strike.”
The officials stressed that is possible that either Yazid or Abu Musa may have been killed in today’s airstrike, but without solid evidence they would not jump to conclusions.