Image: Mustafa Abu al-Yazid
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid is seen in an undated interview.
NBC, and news services
updated 6/1/2010 7:10:15 PM ET 2010-06-01T23:10:15

Al-Qaida's number three — a co-founder of the terror network — has been killed in Pakistan's border area with Afghanistan, according to a statement from the group — perhaps one of the most severe blows to the terror movement since the U.S. campaign against al-Qaida began.

A U.S. official said Mustafa al-Yazid was believed to have died in a U.S. missile strike.

A statement posted on an al-Qaida Website said al-Yazid, which it described as the organization's top commander in Afghanistan, was killed along with his wife, three daughters, a grandchild and other men, women and children but did not say how or where.

The statement did not give an exact date for al-Yazid's death, but it was dated by the Islamic calendar month of "Jemadi al-Akhar," which falls in May.

A U.S. official in Washington said word was "spreading in extremist circles" of his death in Pakistan's tribal areas in the past two weeks.

'A hand in everything'
His death would be a major blow to al-Qaida, which in December "lost both its internal and external operations chiefs," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The White House hailed the news. U.S. officials said Al-Yazid's demise it was "a big victory" in terms of counterterrorism, describing him as "the group's chief operating officer, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning. He was also the organization's prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was key to al-Qaida's command and control."

The Egyptian-born al-Yazid, also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, was a founding member of al-Qaida and the group's prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. He was key to day-to-day control, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning, the U.S. official said.

"In some respects, Sheikh Sa'id's death is more important for al-Qaida operations than if bin Laden or Zawahiri was killed," said Roger Cressey, former deputy chief for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and now an NBC News consultant. "Any al-Qaida operation of any consequence would run through him."

Evan Kohlmann, who tracks al-Qaida for NBC News, added that al-Yazid "was one of the original founders of al-Qaida in 1988, and has served on the group's Shura Council since then. His death is a significant loss for al-Qaida."

Previous reports of his death
Al-Yazid has been reported killed before, in 2008, but this is the first time his death has been acknowledged by the militant group on the Internet.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said al-Yazid died in a U.S. missile strike on May 21 in the North Waziristan tribal area.

Soon after the attack, officials reported that two foreigners were among the 10 people killed, but did not know their identities. Five women and two children were also wounded in the attack, which occurred in the village of Boya near the main town in the area, Miran Shah.

The intelligence officials said they received word of al-Yazid's death last week and confirmed it by speaking to local tribal elders and Taliban members. They said their sources had not seen al-Yazid's body and did not know where he was buried.

Al-Yazid has been one of many targets in a U.S. Predator drone campaign aimed at militants in Pakistan since President Barack Obama took office. Al-Yazid made no secret of his contempt for the United States, once calling it "the evil empire leading crusades against the Muslims."

"We have reached the point where we see no difference between the state and the American people," al-Yazid told Pakistan's Geo TV in a June 2008 interview. "The United States is a non-Muslim state bent on the destruction of Muslims."

Long involvement with extremists
The shadowy, 55-year-old al-Yazid has been involved with Islamic extremist movements for nearly 30 years since he joined radical student groups led by fellow Egyptian al-Zawahri, now the No. 2 figure in al-Qaida after bin Laden.

In the early 1980s, al-Yazid served three years in an Egyptian prison for purported links to the group responsible for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. After his release, al-Yazid turned up in Afghanistan, where, according to al-Qaida's propaganda wing Al-Sabah, he became a founding member of the terrorist group.

He later followed bin Laden to Sudan and back to Afghanistan, where he served as al-Qaida's chief financial officer, managing secret bank accounts in the Persian Gulf that were used to help finance the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. After the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, al-Yazid went into hiding for years. He surfaced in May 2007 during a 45-minute interview posted on the Web by Al-Sabah, in which he was introduced as the "official in charge" of the terrorist movement's operations in Afghanistan.

Some security analysts believe the choice of al-Yazid as the Afghan chief may have signaled a new approach for al-Qaida in the country where it once reigned supreme.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden, believes bin Laden and al-Zawahri wanted a trusted figure to handle Afghanistan "while they turn to other aspects of the jihad outside" the country.

Al-Yazid had little background in leading combat operations. But terrorism experts say his advantage was that he was close to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. As a fluent Pashto speaker known for impeccable manners, al-Yazid enjoyed better relations with the Afghans than many of the al-Qaida Arabs, whom the Afghans found arrogant and abrasive.

That suggested a conscious decision by al-Qaida to embed within the Taliban organization, helping the Afghan allies with expertise and training while at the same time putting an Afghan face on the war.

Al-Yazid himself alluded to such an approach in an interview this year with Al-Jazeera television's Islamabad correspondent Ahmad Zaidan. Al-Yazid said al-Qaida fighters were involved at every level with the Taliban.

"We participate with our brothers in the Islamic Emirate in all fields," al-Yazid said. "This had a big positive effect on the (Taliban) self-esteem in Afghanistan."

A September 2007 al-Qaida video sought to promote the notion of close Taliban-al-Qaida ties at a time when the Afghan insurgents were launching their comeback six years after their ouster from power in Kabul.

The video showed al-Yazid sitting with a senior Taliban commander in a field surrounded by trees as a jihad anthem played. The Taliban commander vowed to "target the infidels in Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan" and to "focus our attacks, Allah willing, on the coalition forces in Afghanistan."

There is also evidence that al-Yazid has promoted ties with Islamic extremist groups in Central Asia and Pakistan, where other top al-Qaida figures are believed to be hiding.

"He definitely seems to have significant influence among the Pakistani Taliban and the Central Asian groups," terrorism expert Evan Kohlman said. "They regularly post and share his videos on the Web, just as they would with bin Laden or al-Zawahri."

In August 2008, Pakistani military officials claimed al-Yazid had been killed in fighting in the Bajaur tribal area along the Afghan border. However, he turned up in subsequent al-Qaida videos, all of which had clearly been made after the Bajaur fighting.

NBC's Robert Windrem as well as The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Top al-Qaida commander believed dead

  1. Closed captioning of: Top al-Qaida commander believed dead

    >>> minutes.

    >>> we begin with the breaking news, al qaeda 's number three official, said al masri killed in pakistan. jim miklaszewski is .n

    >> reporter: in the news of counterterrorism, this is a huge victory. said al masri was reportedly killed in the remote tribal regions of western pakistan in one of those cia predator missile strikes more than a week ago. as a founding member of al qaeda , al masri has been involved with that group for more than 20 years and is about as close to osama bin laden and number two ayman al zawahiri as you can get. u.s. officials describe al masri as al qaeda 's chief operating officer, primarily known to be responsible for the financing of the terrorist organization but as the u.s. has killed off many al qaeda leaders over the past couple of years, al masri was forced, in fact, to take over some of the terrorist planning for al qaeda . more importantly for the u.s. military , al masri was also reportedly working very closely with the taliban who are currently fighting american forces across the border in afghanistan.

    >> mick, does this mean we are any closer to finding either bin laden or al zawahiri ?

    >> reporter: u.s. officials say al masri was the major -- the single most important conduit of information and linked to osama bin laden and ayman al zawahiri , which raises a very intriguing question. if the u.s. was able to track and find al masri who communicates with bin laden and zawahiri, just how close are they to those two top leaders? they won't say. they'll only say bin laden and zawahiri are spending most of their time trying to stay alive. but according to one u.s. official, after this attack, and this killing of the al qaeda number three, that organization is really hurting. meredith?

    >> jim miklaszewski at the pentagon this morning, thank you so much. it is 7:03. here's


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