By Matthew Cole and Nick Schifrin
The death of Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid, al Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, is one of the most significant blows to al Qaeda under the Obama administration, and brings to an end an era of jihad.
The death of Abu al Yazid, a key figure in the 9-11 attacks who was considered al Qaeda's number three leader, removes one of the organization's best-trained veterans from the field. It deprives Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, of one of their few remaining close confidants, and forces al Qaeda to turn to younger, less experienced leaders.
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, also known as Sheikh Sa'id, was killed late on May 21 in a CIA drone attack in the Datta Khel region of North Waziristan, according to residents of the village where he died.
Al Qaeda released a statement yesterday that eulogized al Yazid, calling him a martyr and praising his three-decade career fighting in multiple jihads. The statement said that Yazid's wife, three daughters and a granddaughter died with him; residents say the four missiles that hit the compound where he was staying also killed three Arabs and nine locals, but make no mention of Yazid's relations.
Since 9/11, American military and counterterrorism forces have killed or captured hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, including the man often cited as the original "number three," Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. A senior U.S. official told ABC News that being al Qaeda's number three is "the most dangerous job in the world."
But of the multiple "number three's" who the U.S. has killed, Yazid was the most important, not just because of personal relationships with Zawahiri and bin Laden going back decades. According to a U.S. official, it's also because Yazid has been one of the most "dangerous" members of al Qaeda. "He was a very unpleasant guy," said the official. "He's had a hand or a role in every major thing that the group has done to us or our allies in the last 9 years."
Since 2007, Yazid has been al Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, brought into that position after al Qaeda's relationship with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, had cooled. An Egyptian, Yazid was an early member of Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. When Zawahiri's group merged with bin Laden's group to make the present day al Qaeda, Yazid became a founding member of al Qaeda.
He joined bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 1980s, having fled Egypt after being released from prison in Cairo, where he served three years for his purported connection to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Yazid, who served for many years as al Qaeda's accountant and chief financial officer, was a leading strategist of the organization and a trusted deputy of both Zawahiri and bin Laden, one of the few in al Qaeda believed to have direct access to the two elusive leaders of the organization. Yazid was cited in the 9/11 Commission's report as the person who controlled the funds used for the devastating attacks.
While the 9/11 commission described al-Yazid as a "chief financial officer," in recent years he had ascended into a higher position, with his hand in virtually everything al Qaeda did. "He has an intimate understanding not only of the books," said a U.S. official, "but also how the money is being spent, which departments are operating correctly and incorrectly, how am I amortizing my costs, etc."
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Yazid fled Afghanistan and hid, finally re-emerging in 2007 when al Qaeda announced his position leading the group in Afghanistan.
Since then, he has been a consistent face of al Qaeda, appearing in dozens of videos and audio-tapes, excoriating American troops and calling for more attacks against the West.
At the time of his return to the battlefield, analysts and experts noted that Yazid was chosen because of his strong relationship with (cut) Mullah Omar and his excellent rapport with the Afghan Pashtun fighters under Omar.
His promotion was seen as an effort by bin Laden to strengthen ties with the Taliban and refocus efforts on the war inside Afghanistan.
But as he rose in the ranks, the United States began to kill mid-level al Qaeda leaders, forcing Yazid to become less strategic and more tactical, according to a U.S. official. "He has to be in touch with people, has to take the meetings, he has to send out the messages. And that exposed him," the official said.
As al Qaeda's leaders have been targeted, the group has morphed, in part by helping and embedding with local terror groups. A U.S. official compared how al Qaeda currently operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to a venture capital firm. Al Qaeda has found groups to "invest" in, helping them facilitate, finance, train, and organize. Yazid was at the center of that effort, a "conduit" between al Qaeda and groups such as the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as the Taliban, according to the official. The official compared Yazid to the venture capital firm's "angel investor" who has made some "very wise investments" in certain groups in recent years.
U.S. authorities have announced Yazid's death on more than one occasion before, only to have Yazid appear in a video and boast that he was still alive.
Although al Qaeda will have already replaced Yazid on the organizational chart, his experience and veteran leadership will be difficult to replace.
Yazid's death does not mark the end of al Qaeda nor suggest U.S. forces are any closer to finding bin Laden and Al Zawahiri.
But it does mark the end of the line of al Qaeda operatives who forged their skills in the Afghan jihad against Russia in the 1980's.
And it suggests that al Qaeda is currently made up and led on a daily basis by a much younger group of terrorists, ones who gained their experience after 9/11. The newer leaders, analysts say, could prove more radical, less mature, and perhaps degrade al Qaeda's global aspirations.
Additional reporting by Martha Raddatz.