National Security

New Face Emerges Among Al-Qaida's Leaders

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There's a new face of al-Qaida, and he can bee seen on videos that the group's propaganda arm produces. His name is Mustafa Abu Yazid, and he is the head of a small command that, among other things, helps direct al-Qaida attacks.

A recent Internet appearance came soon after the U.S. killed the head of the Taliban in Pakistan in a Predator drone attack. Al-Qaida filmed a video eulogy, and Abu Yazid was the star in the eight-minute film extolling the virtues of Baitullah Mehsud.

Terrorism experts say Abu Yazid is on the rise. He is No. 3 in al-Qaida's organization and heads up one of its most important terrorism networks: the theater of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The leader with the closest relationships with those networks critical to the activities of al-Qaida central in that region is Mustafa Abu Yazid," said Vahid Brown, a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. "That's why he has become what many people call No. 3 in the organization."

No. 1 and No. 2 are Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Officials say at this point, bin Laden and Zawahiri may have concluded that they are more valuable as symbols of al-Qaida, instead of its chief executives.

They have ceded many of the group's day-to-day operations to trusted allies. The general command committee led by Abu Yazid is in charge of planning attacks and strategy.

"He is the part of the next generation of al-Qaida leadership that has been launched, so to speak, in a very public fashion," Brown said.

While Abu Yazid's public role is fairly new, his membership in al-Qaida is not. He was there essentially at its creation in 1988.

Initially, he was in charge of the group's finances — a type of CFO for the terrorist organization back when al-Qaida was in Sudan. He moved to Afghanistan with bin Laden in 1996, when he began to develop ties with key Taliban figures.

Brown says those connections made Abu Yazid a natural choice to lead al-Qaida's Afghan and Pakistani operations.

"He does have quite good relationships with these networks, particularly in Pakistan and the tribal areas," Brown said. "He apparently speaks Pashto, or at least some Pashto, something that sets him apart from the other senior leaders who are now kind of taking a public role."

Sam Rascoff, a law professor at New York University and an al-Qaida specialist, said Abu Yazid also has a top-notch terrorism pedigree.

"Here's a guy, born in the middle of the 20th century in Egypt, and that's significant because with the exception of Osama bin Laden himself, al-Qaida was essentially for many years a thoroughly Egyptian organization," Rascoff said.

That pedigree has become increasingly important as al-Qaida's leadership ranks have thinned. Intelligence officials estimate that about 50 members of al-Qaida's core leadership are still alive.

Among that small group, only a handful have a long, personal history with bin Laden and Zawahiri. Abu Yazid is one of those people. He spent three years in prison with Zawahiri in Egypt. And because of that, he is above reproach — he is completely trusted.

Intelligence officials worry because Abu Yazid's name keeps popping up in relation to Westerners who have trained in al-Qaida camps. Officials say they think Abu Yazid sometimes contacts recruits. They also say he has become the person who must approve their participation in attacks.

Brown said that shouldn't be a surprise.

"It's natural given his proximity, his role, his very central role in activities of al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which of course include their interest in training people that can come through camps there," he said.

At this point, it's unclear how many young men from the U.S. have gone through the camps or received Abu Yazid's approval. Yet intelligence officials say it's the al-Qaida trainees Abu Yazid has singled out that worries them most.



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