Qaeda Aide Believed Dead
Drone Attack in Pakistan Said to Have Killed No. 3 Officialhttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703406604575279392274902642.html?mod=wsj_india_main
WASHINGTON—Al Qaeda's third in command, who played key roles in a recently foiled terrorist plot against the U.S. and the 2001 terrorist attacks, is believed to have been killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan's tribal areas, potentially dealing a significant blow to the terrorist network.
Sheik Sa'id al-Masri, al Qaeda's chief operating officer, was killed a little more than a week ago, according to two U.S. officials.
"This is the main person who everyone has been looking for," one official said.
The Obama administration has relied heavily on Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes to combat al Qaeda, even as intelligence and White House officials have grown increasingly concerned about the threat of terrorist operatives hiding in plain sight in the U.S. More than 500 militants have been killed in the CIA's drone campaign since President Barack Obama took office.
Mr. Masri, in his mid-50s, is believed to have been a key al Qaeda official behind the plot of Najibullah Zazi, who plead guilty earlier this year to planning to blow up the New York subway. He also provided funds to three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Masri was targeted based on U.S. intelligence tips, and officials had been working to confirm his death when al Qaeda posted a eulogy to him on militant websites on Tuesday, two officials said.
Al Qaeda said in a message to jihadist websites that Mr. Masri's wife, three daughters, his granddaughter and others were also killed, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors these websites. U.S. officials didn't confirm that claim late Monday.
"Word is spreading in extremist circles" of Mr. Masri's death, said another U.S. official. "We have strong reason to believe that's true, and that al-Masri was killed recently in Pakistan's tribal areas. In terms of counterterrorism, this would be a big victory."
Mr. Masri is the highest profile al Qaeda leader to have been killed in at least a year and a half, making him the most important al Qaeda militant killed during the Obama administration.
He is the group's main conduit to al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In addition to honchoing operations, Mr. Masri also had a hand in the group's finances and operational planning in Afghanistan and other international targets.
Also known as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, Mr. Masri is an Egyptian who was a founding member of al Qaeda. He is believed to have served jail time with Mr. Zawahiri following the 1981 assasination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
His death is "a major blow to al Qaeda," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor who writes extensively on al Qaeda. "He was an emerging star in al Qaeda's firmament and his death will be a grave setback to the organization."
U.S. officials heralded the killing of Mr. Masri as a major counterterrorism victory.
"He was key to al Qaeda's command and control," said a U.S. official. Mr. Masri's death follows those of the group's internal and external operations chiefs in December.
Mr. Masri's death, the official added, shows that Pakistan's tribal areas aren't the safe haven al Qaeda and other militants have believed it to be.
Still, Mr. Hoffman said, al Qaeda has quickly fielded new third in commands in the past. Being al Qaeda's No. 3 is an unlucky post, because that person seems to get killed more frequently than many.
"At least five or six previous al Qaeda 'No. 3s' have been killed and captured in the past eight years," Mr. Hoffman said. "It may be that we are finally depleting its hitherto deep bench of operatives. It is likely though, based on past experience, that a successor is already waiting in the wings."
While U.S. officials believe the al Qaeda eulogy for Mr. Masri to be the final confirmation of his death, there have been militants who were initially believed to be dead who later turned up alive. Rumors circulated in Pakistan in 2008 that Mr. Masri had been killed, but they were never confirmed. Last year, U.S. officials said Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant leader of an al Qaeda affiliate, had been killed, but he later turned up alive.