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There's a new face of al-Qaida. You can see him on videos produced by al-Qaida's propaganda machine. More importantly, he heads a small command that, among other things, helps direct al-Qaida attacks.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on a previously little-known member of al-Qaida's inner circle.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: When the U.S. managed to kill the head of the Taliban in Pakistan in August, al-Qaida filmed a video eulogy for the Internet.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

TEMPLE-RASTON: The man who starred in the production is now the number three in al-Qaida's organization, terrorism experts say.

Mr. MUSTAFA ABU AL-YAZID (al-Qaida Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: His name is Mustafa Abu Yazid, and he's in charge of a key al-Qaida terror network.

Mr. VAHID BROWN (Fellow, West Point Combating Terrorism Center): The primary theater operations for command and control of al-Qaida central are Afghanistan and Pakistan.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Vahid Brown is a fellow at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.

Mr. BROWN: And in that sense, the leader with the closest relationships with those networks critical to the activities of al-Qaida central in that region is Mustafa Abu Yazid, and I think that's why he has become kind of the - what many people call the number three in the organization.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Numbers one and two, of course, are Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Officials say that bin Laden and Zawahiri may have decided that they're more valuable as symbols than chief executives of al-Qaida. So they ceded day-to-day operations to trusted allies. Intelligence officials say Abu Yazid heads up al-Qaida's general command committee. That's the group in charge of planning attacks and strategy. Again, Vahid Brown.

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

TEMPLE-RASTON: While Abu Yazid's public role is fairly new, he was there at al-Qaida's creation in 1988. Initially, he was in charge of al-Qaida's finances, a type of CFO for the group back when al-Qaida was in Sudan. He moved to Afghanistan with bin Laden in 1996, and that's when he began to develop ties with key Taliban figures. West Point's Brown says those connections made Abu Yazid a natural choice to lead al-Qaida's Afghan and Pakistani operations.

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

Professor SAM RASCOFF (Law, New York University): I think what's interesting is his pedigree.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Rascoff is a law professor at New York University and an al-Qaida specialist.

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

TEMPLE-RASTON: 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. And among that small group, only a handful have a long, personal history with bin Laden and Zawahiri. Abu Yazid is one of those people. In fact, he spent three years in prison with Zawahiri in Egypt, and because of that, he's above reproach. He's completely trusted. Intelligence officials worry that Abu Yazid's name keeps popping up in relation to Westerners who've trained in al-Qaida camps. Officials say they believe that Abu Yazid sometimes contacts recruits. They also say he's become the person who must approve their participation in attacks.

West Point's Vahid Brown says that shouldn't be a surprise.

Mr. BROWN: 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.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's unclear how many young men from the U.S. have gone through the camps or received Abu Yazid's approval. Intelligence officials say it's precisely those al-Qaida trainees Abu Yazid has singled out that worries them most.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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