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Al-Qaida confirmed today that one of its high-ranking members was killed in a drone attack. His name was Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. Last August, he became the face of al-Qaida, the star in a lot of its propaganda videos. The U.S. says he was widely viewed as the number three figure in al-Qaida. He was in charge of the group's operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And U.S. intelligence is calling his death a big blow to the terrorist group.
But some analysts say its importance should not be overplayed. Al-Qaida is no longer the hierarchical group it once was, and Yazid is just the latest in a long list of so-called number threes whove been killed.
NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has the story.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: News of Abu Yazid's demise has been announced before. Back in 2008, the U.S. thought he'd been killed in a bomb attack. Then he resurfaced on an al-Qaida video months later. This time, al-Qaida actually announced his death in a statement on the Internet - that suggests he's really dead.
Professor MATTHEW WAXMAN (Columbia University Law School): This time it sounds like U.S. intelligence officials have higher confidence that he's actually been killed.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Waxman is a professor at Columbia University Law School and a former Defense Department and National Security Council official. Abu Yazid is the seventh number three al-Qaida leader to have been killed since 2001. Waxman says he it isn't sure his death is a blow to the organization.
Prof. WAXMAN: One thing that we've seen since 9/11 is al-Qaida as an organization decentralizing even further into a sort of a looser structure of franchise organizations spread across many different areas of the world. And this makes it very difficult to assess the practical impact of a strike like this.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, the joke goes that the way to get yourself killed fastest is to be the number three in al-Qaida.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WAXMAN: Right. Well, I think we use the term number three in al-Qaida pretty broadly. I think its often used as a label for any leadership figure who has some pretty substantial role in operational planning.
TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. officials started giving Abu Yazid the number three designation after he was made al-Qaida's operational commander in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He decided on attacks and strategy, while Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, considered one and two in the organization, stayed behind the scenes.
U.S. intelligence says there are about 50 members of al-Qaida's core leadership who are still alive. Among that group, only a handful have a long, personal history with bin Laden and Zawahiri. Abu Yazid was one of those people.
Professor SAM RASCOFF (New York University School of Law): You could almost think of him as a kind of longstanding cabinet secretary in al-Qaida.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sam Rascoff is a professor at NYU Law School and a terrorism expert.
Prof. RASCOFF: He's been something like a secretary of the treasury, he's been something like a secretary of state, and more recently he's been something like the chief of military operations in Afghanistan. So he's clearly a trusted adviser, someone who has had any number of very significant jobs for al-Qaida over the years.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Rascoff says in the past, al-Qaida has always been able to find replacements after attacks on its leadership.
Prof. RASCOFF: Truth be told, there have been lots of other successful drone attacks against other high-level al-Qaida operatives in the past. Been very difficult to say with any precision that this or that attack has lead to this or that diminution in the organization's operational capacity, for example.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida has yet to say who Abu Yazid's successor as number three will be.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.