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Al Qaeda only has two HVTs left. Really.



What passes for a deep understanding of the nature of al Qaeda's leadership within US government intelligence circles continues to amaze. According to "US counterterrorism and intelligence officials," there are only two al Qaeda leaders left in Pakistan. From The Washington Post:

The leadership ranks of the main al-Qaeda terrorist network, once expansive enough to supervise the plot for Sept. 11, 2001, have been reduced to just two figures whose demise would mean the group's defeat, U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials said.

Ayman al-Zawahiri and his second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, are the last remaining "high-value" targets of the CIA's drone campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, U.S. officials said, although lower-level fighters and other insurgent groups remain a focus of Predator surveillance and strikes.

Al-Qaeda's contraction comes amid indications that the group has considered relocating in recent years but that it ruled out other destinations as either unreachable or offering no greater security than their missile-pocked territory in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.

Some articles are so ridiculous that they barely dignify a response. I was torn about addressing this one, but the meme of al Qaeda's looming defeat will get a lot of traction, and deserves to be refuted. To keep the response short: How do US officials classify the following al Qaeda leaders who are known to be based in Pakistan?

  • Abd al Aziz al Masri
  • Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah
  • Abu Faraj al Yemeni
  • Abu Haris
  • Abu Kasha al Iraqi
  • Abu Turab al Urduni
  • Adnan G. el Shukrijumah
  • Ahmad Farooq
  • Ali Sayyid Muhamed Mustafa al Bakri
  • Dr. Amin al Haq
  • Hamza bin Laden
  • Mafouz Ould Walid
  • Mahsood Azhar
  • Marwan al Suri
  • Matiur Rehman
  • Mohamed Abul Khair
  • Muhammad Rab'a al Sayid al Bahtiti
  • Mustafa al Jaziri
  • Qari Saifullah Akhtar
  • Qari Zia Rahman
  • Rashid Rauf
  • Saad al Sharif
  • Sa'ad bin Laden (he's been rumored to have been killed, however this was never confirmed)
  • Saif al Adel
  • Sheikh Issa al Masri
  • Sulaiman Abu Ghaith
  • Thirwat Saleh Shihata

Ilyas Kashmiri and Atiyah Abd al Rahman were left off the list because the US insists they are dead, even though this has not been confirmed. And the roll above merely scratches the surface of al Qaeda leaders operating in Pakistan. And it doesn't include members from the host of allied terror groups that al Qaeda draws upon for its leadership cadre, such as Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, who in addition to serving as the head of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party, directs al Qaeda's operations in the tribal areas. Or Abu Usman Adil, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose fighters serve as al Qaeda bodyguards and shock troops. Or Mullah Nazir, the self-described al Qaeda leader from South Waziristan who shelters the terror group's leaders in his Taliban tribal areas.

Finally, note something written here at Threat Matrix in July 2010 that addressed US claims that al Qaeda was on the verge of defeat:

Unfortunately, the top tiers of US intelligence continually underestimate al Qaeda's strength and overestimate the US' ability to degrade the network. Just the other week, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that half of al Qaeda has been eliminated. The Bush administration used to do this all the time, for instance in 2004 it claimed that 3/4 of al Qaeda had been killed or captured.

How many times do the US government and the intelligence community need to be wrong about declaring the near-death of al Qaeda before we should ignore them?


Bill Ardolino contributed to this post.



READER COMMENTS: "Al Qaeda only has two HVTs left. Really."

Posted by Mr T at November 23, 2011 4:08 PM ET:

Good Grief! They must be trying to fake us out or something.

Sun Tzu said "Know your enemy". Thats probably good advice.

Posted by mike merlo at November 23, 2011 5:12 PM ET:

I wonder if this is indicative of Zawahiri & Libi possibly nearing apprehension or elimination?

Posted by Devin Leonard at November 23, 2011 5:38 PM ET:

Al Qaida will technically NEVER be on the verge of defeat, because there only needs to be one Al Qaida guy around of any sophistication for the organization to exist (at least tecnically). The CIA has some great people in thier ranks and Panetta is doing a good job of re-building their spy-craft capabilities (although not soon enough to keep Hezbollah from finding some of our proxy agents in Lebanon). But the CIA's SAD personel are among the best hunter/killer operatives in the world. But still the Pakistan arm of Al Qaida must be acknowledged and dealt with via Spec Ops and Stealth drones...if Pakistan puts up a fuss, cut their aid, pure and simple!

Posted by SgtJim at November 23, 2011 5:44 PM ET:

ahum 2: the black and the white?

or really just 2 of them, others are moved to? Libya? Yemen?

or the Paki government really got this high pressure on the US foreign/anti-terror/war on terror politics/media?
what's happening in the background? who's got deal with who? and why?

Posted by Render at November 23, 2011 6:15 PM ET:

It's a talking point. Designed and intended to ease the US exit from Afghanistan.

Cutting aid to Pakistan will go much smoother when we're not shipping almost 70% of our troops Afghan needs through Pakistani ports and on Pakistani trucks.

LAST
HELICOPTER
OUT,
R

Posted by Michael Dean Gold at November 23, 2011 7:40 PM ET:

I think the sources were implying that there's only two guys left in Pakistan with the leadership capability of Osama bin Laden, which is a fair statement. When you kill leaders throughout the organization as we've been doing, less-qualified and less-capable underlings are forced to move up. I don't think we can deny the Islamic Mafia we know as al Qaeda has been significantly degraded in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This may also be why the AQAP is making it's move to be the big al Qaeda on campus. When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, it does appear that this specific terrorist organization is just trying to survive. They've lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, losing in Pakistan and will lose in Yemen & Somalia. In Pakistan, we've bigger fish to fry called Haqqani.

Posted by gary siebel at November 23, 2011 8:03 PM ET:

And how many times did you hear in the past that we should have declared victory in Vietnam and got out?

Iraq war was a HUGE mistake. Diverted attention from the main enemy and almost bankrupted us in the process. Unless a certain party wants to relent and raise taxes we will have no choice in Afghanistan but to declare victory and get out.

Keep an eye on the Shabaab. They are going down, pinned to the coast and caught in a pincer -- slow moving but a pincer nonetheless. Both Ethiopia and Kenya seem to be serious. If the USA doesn't get 100% behind the effort to wipe out Shabaab it would be a significant mistake. Crushing Shabababoo would balance a marginal victory in Afghanistan.

Posted by Observer at November 24, 2011 3:20 AM ET:

Defeating al-Qaeda is not just about making the guys out, but also about discrediting the whole enterprise. As it has been unable to carry out terror acts of substance in the West since 2005, the loss of leadership combined with inability to strike hard at Western countries means, for all means and purposes, the death of the movement.

I remember that in the documents recovered from the lair of OBL, there was a note that al-Qaeda's top guys were afraid of striking at West because of the inevitable retaliation. And these people are supposed to hate West more than to love their lives...

Posted by James Green at November 24, 2011 5:51 AM ET:

Bill, some of the men you listed are dead, notably al Urduni.

In any case, you know this statement is part of a cynical left-wing political game.

Posted by Mirage at November 24, 2011 3:58 PM ET:

I could be wrong, but i think that Ali Sayyid Muhamed Mustafa al Bakri and Abd al Aziz al Masri are the same people, its just that he uses Masri as a alias to cover real name, Ali Sayyid Muhamed Mustafa al Bakri

Posted by Bill Roggio at November 24, 2011 7:01 PM ET:

I know US intel thinks Urdani is dead, I just never saw anything definitive on that. Rashid Rauf has been claimed dead but his family has said no; everything I can see on him indicates he's still alive. I'm pretty sure I did get Abu Haris wrong - a Syrian going by that name who served as al Qaeda ops chief for Pakistan was killed in 2008.

Posted by Joe at November 25, 2011 5:34 PM ET:

It is possible that our intelligence organizations are no longer publicly naming the people they believe to hold the leadership positions, or that they do not have a clear idea of the hierarchy. It is certain that Al Qaeda is trying to shield this information from us for obvious reasons. No real way for us to know if we are intentionally not naming our targets so as to let them think that they are not being targeted.

Posted by Tom Kelleher at November 26, 2011 1:05 AM ET:

Ever been to a dog race? Somehow, this mechanical 'fox' gets started up, the dogs become distracted by it, and have a long, satisfying, barky chase around a track after an elusive object that is never quite run down to the ground.

This is the second time I have read an article in LWJ that took vague statements from unknown 'administration officials' and concluded they formed the core of what the current administration believes to be true about Al Qaida and its abilities. Again, I feel like I've been to the dog races to endure another long satisfying barky chase after an target I suspect has no more merit than a mechanical fox.


Exactly.


Trust your instincts next time, Bill.

Posted by REDDEVIL at November 26, 2011 11:50 AM ET:

Bill, your title Al Qaeda only has two HVTs left. Really.
should read, Al Qaeda only has two HVTs left. Really?
I was offended before reading the article. What passes for success and leadership in US national security circles may not always pass muster in the real world. Example from the real world, Afghanistan... Obama's PR machine is in a hurry but they have one thing going for them, they can read a teleprompter and avoid any commitments. I still laugh cause no one has made an a real effort to target the religious scholars, the backers who incite all.

Posted by Nolan at November 26, 2011 6:59 PM ET:

Hey Bill, Just wanting to clarify some things...You guys have Abu Haris and Mustafa al-Jaziri listed as being killed in the Predator campaign. Many other reports match with yours as having Abu Haris dying in Fall 2008 and Al-Jaziri as having been killed in September 2009 in a strike that aimed for Ilyas Kashmiri. Just wondering if there has been new information that these men are alive. In fact, where I can find references to Abu Haris before his death, I cannot find any relating to Mustafa al-Jaziri prior to that particular strike. What was his importance and role do you think? Also, Marwan Hadid al-Suri was killed all the way back in 2006. Abdulaziz al-Masri is the nom de guerre of Ali al-Bakri in listings by the state department, etc. Is there another militant using that kunya? Has there been any further confirmation that Mohammed Abul Khair really died this year? And most reports have Sheikh Issa al-Masri as having moved to Syria, is that still believed by the intel community? Sorry for the deluge of questions, but I was just curious to see those names floating around again.

Posted by D.B. at November 26, 2011 9:20 PM ET:

Mr. Roggio,

AQ has itself confirmed that Abu Turab is KIA. Please refer to As-Sahab release: "And Knowledge is for acting upon" (aka Highest Hopes) Part#2 RT: 4:08

Also there is a Abu Farris al-Urduni who is still around in the North. Maybe it is him you mean, but he is not part of AQ.

Thanks

Posted by Bill Roggio at November 27, 2011 9:40 AM ET:

Hi Nolan & DB,

I re-checked my records; there is another Abu Haris (I have seen him described as Sheikh Abu al Haris) who operates in the tribal areas and works with ex ops. I believe he is a Pakistani. He was quoted in a martyrdom statement for ETIM leader Abdul al Haq al Turkistani in the spring of 2009, more than six months after Abu Haris al Suri was killed.

Mustafa al Jaziri should not be on the list, no questions that was a mistake. Same with Urdani, I concede he is indeed dead (I found that statement, thanks for the pointer). Jaziri was described as AQ's ops chief. We never head of him prior to his death or capture, is is often the case with the ex ops chief (see Osama al Kini for instance).

I know the Pakistanis claimed Marwan al Suri was killed in May 2006. They also claimed he was killed in Jan. 2006, with five other top al Qaeda leaders in Bajaur. I am told I should be very skeptical of the reports of his death, and I am.

Sheikh Issa was reported to have moved to Syria to help reorganize AQI in western/northern Iraq. His current location is unknown to me. I have seen a report the Syrians "detained" him but I skeptical.

BTW I could easily add to this list; there are plenty of AQ operatives who have served the top leadership who have appeared in Pakistan but have since gone to ground. They may be in Pak, or they may have moved elsewhere to help direct AQ affiliates.

And that is part of the issue: if the US is viewing AQ narrowly thru leadership based in Pakistan, and only considers those who are directly related to ex ops, then we'r employing a loser's game. The vast majority of AQ's ops are not directed at "raids" (as they call them ) against us, but in local wars. AQ cherry picks from their war machine to seed their "special operations" to carry out raids. If we only focus on ex ops and ignore the rest of the organization, we leave the nucleus intact.

Posted by Charles at November 29, 2011 11:32 AM ET:

We could probably add Adam Gadahn to the list as well. Not a major leader to be sure, but certainly a traitorous annoyance that should be eliminated.

Posted by Scott Peterson at December 7, 2011 1:48 AM ET:

It appears to me that the US military is using the book on what we did wrong in Vietnam as their strategy guide for Afghanistan.

"Secret" bombings of a neighboring country

A puppet government that would collapse quickly absent heavy US support

Nation building

Enemy fighters can take refuge in neighboring country that the US can't/won't attack