Was Mustafa Abu Yazid al Qaeda’s #3?


Image courtesy of Rantburg.

As reports of the death of al Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu Yazid continue to break, US administration and intelligence officials, and the media, are eager to declare that he was al Qaeda’s third in command. But do you remember back on Dec. 12, 2009, when Abu Yahya al Libi was reported killed and officials were quick to declare him al Qaeda’s #3? We do. And we also addressed the issue of al Qaeda’s #3 then. Here is the post, republished in full. The same logic applies to Yazid; he was one of the most important leaders in al Qaeda but that doesn’t mean he was #3, or that the position even exists:

It is always interesting to watch the press coverage when the rumors begin to fly after a senior al Qaeda leader is thought to have been killed in a US airstrike inside Pakistan. Invariably, after it is determined that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri were not killed in the attack, a news organization or two almost always identifies the thought-to-be-slain al Qaeda leader as the Number Three, or the third in the chain of command. This happened yesterday, when Abu Yahya al Libi was rumored to have been killed (that rumor was incorrect, as Saleh al Somali, al Qaeda’s external operations chief, was later identified as the operative thought to have been killed). Here is how CBS News described al Libi:

Earlier, Pakistan media had incorrectly reported that the strike killed al Qaeda’s number 3 in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

This isn’t to single out CBS News; it won’t be the first or last organization to do this. Previously, news organizations ihave dentified Abu Hamza Rabia (operations chief, killed in December 2005), Abu Laith al Libi (military commander, killed in January 2008), Osama al Kini (external operations chief, killed in January 2009), and a host of al Qaeda leaders as the number 3 after their deaths. While each of these men were top al Qaeda leaders, identifying them as the third in command (a position that many intelligence officials I speak to do not believe even exists) does little to further the understanding of al Qaeda’s network.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • T Ruth says:

    Bill, thanks for refreshing that–i remember very well when you wrote that original blog.
    Its a bit like an American bank, everyone is Vice President.
    But what about the AQ announcement that he was The Commander for Afghanistan–is that how you saw it? If so i guess thats a bigger deal than whether he was #3 or #5 and a half.

  • kp says:

    Not to forget the original “number 3”. A perhaps better choice of numbers in this case. Mohammed Atef killed (with some of his family) in Nov 2001 by a Predator firing a Hellfire. Perhaps the first HVT killed by a drone?
    I think he’s the only #3 who was actually photographed with the other two on a regular basis and knew them from the old Soviet Afghan Days and Sudan.

  • Eric L says:

    I’ve read/heard that this number “3” is considered number “3” because he is the gatekeeper to OBL and Zawahiri. Does anyone else in the community have more information on this?

  • kp says:

    Eric, I think understanding that AZ/UBL connection to the rest of their org, the management structure at the top of AQ and how it is maintained is perhaps the most important clue for ultimately getting to AZ/UBL.

    I suspect the top 2 are kept well away from day to day operations and perhaps have only a low bandwidth courier/dead drop links to their minions and the outside world. The “#3(s)” are the guys out in the open that can be tracked and more easily hit even though they probably keep as low a profile as they can but they have to meet with people.

    UBL I suspect is holed up somewhere with a minimal security detail (very low profile … perhaps in a urban area) and only meets with AZ very occasionally perhaps not at all.

    AZ I suspect meets up with his reports at most very infrequently (maybe not at all as the reports are more traceable and could be followed back to him) perhaps just setting goals and approving direction. This sort of operation can work if you trust your reports (like someone that has been around like Masri for a long time). I suspect newer guys will be less trusted unless they have a very good pedigree.

    The question of the number of “#3(s)” is as Bill says is mostly moot. If AZ feels he has to meet with the #3 I think it’s more likely that there is only one “#3”. If as I suspect he doesn’t meet up with them then a more sensible structure would be to have multiple “#3” perhaps with different responsibilities each communicating through a different courier network. That would make the “#3” a stop loss: he may get killed but he can’t reveal the top 2 even if captured and waterboarded (you have to assume that the “#3” will be captured and will talk).

    The main problem for that org is to have a reliable way of reestablishing contact between AZ/UBL when the single #3 is hit or captured yet remaining difficult to follow if a person is captured. So multiple “#3(s)” seems like a preferred solution with some method to organize themselves (with the nod from AZ and UBL) and to “promote” others. To some extent the “#3” level of the org has to be self-starting and that makes it an important target as that’s where the “real” action is. The downside of multiple “#3s” is each is a potential point of failure so that communication link must not be traceable by even a very determined (and wealthy) opponent. And if multiple #3s know about each other then that makes the others a bit more vulnerable when one is captured or followed.

    BTW, in this attack if we knew this was Masri (and I suspect we did given the collateral damage) then I suspect we may have been following him for a while to see if he does lead us to AZ. That would be a obvious idea. The usual tension between acting on current good intel to hit this guy while we know where his was and waiting to see if he takes us to AZ (an even bigger fish) would have been massive. Yet another thing we (and AQ) doesn’t know.

  • Lorenz Gude says:

    Once again LWJ proves to be a better and more journalisticly responsible source than the MSM who seem to bring a simplistic 1-2-3 mentality to this story more appropriate to sports reporting. Similarly, Bill was doing flash presentations that revealed the pattern in US search and destroy missions in Anbar province when the MSM were crying Whack-a-Mole. But there is more – kp’s analysis above takes off from Bill’s corrective (of the MSM) reporting and gives us an example of ‘crowdsourced’ analysis that is generally not available from top down legacy media forms like newspapers and television. Yes, you can tweet at CNN, but kp’s analysis above is the sort of thing you might get on a good day from a carefully vetted and groomed ‘expert’ on one or another of the cable channels.


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