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The American al Qaeda member who the Obama administration is considering killing through a drone strike is likely a bombmaker with little public profile who has been linked to the deaths of fellow citizens in Afghanistan, experts say.
A former U.S. security official told NBC News that the suspect is based in lawless western Pakistan, where missiles fired by American drones have slain dozens of suspected al Qaeda members since 2004.
According to one current and another former U.S. intelligence official, the potential target is considered a member of "al Qaeda Central," the core organization led by Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al Zawahiri.
Officials told The Associated Press earlier this week that the White House was weighing a drone strike aimed at a U.S. citizen plotting attacks on Americans abroad using improvised explosives devices.
“I can’t comment on who this individual is, but as an American, who would [know] a lot more about his country, which would make him very dangerous,” said Talata Masood, a retired lieutenant general in the Pakistan army.
The consensus among security experts is that the target has likely not appeared in a known al Qaeda propaganda video, popped up on Twitter espousing global jihad or seen his photograph on the on the CIA’s most-wanted list.
“I’m inclined to think that it is someone we haven’t heard a lot about before."
J.M. Berger, the author of “Jihad Joe,” a book on American extremists, tends to agree.
“I’m inclined to think that it is someone we haven’t heard a lot about before,” he said.
Initially, experts and commentators speculated the possible target was Adam Yehiye Gadahn, who also goes by the name Azzam al-Amriki. But security officials told NBC News that the target was not Gadahn.
“As soon as I saw the headline my immediate guess was it was Gadahn,” said Sharad Joshi, an terrorism expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., and an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. “Then some analysts saw information indicating that [Gadahn] is more P.R. and the person they are targeting is more an operative and not a public face of al Qaeda.
Adnan Shukrijumah, another al Qaeda member who grew up in the United States, was also ruled out as the target because the individual referred to by the White House has yet to be indicted, in line with the United States’ drone strike policy. Both Shukrijumah and Gadahn have already been formally accused and indicted.
Another clue to the possible target’s identity may lie with the transformation that al Qaeda is undergoing.
According to Berger, the group is changing from an organization whose main priority is carrying out terrorist attacks to one that primarily fights wars and insurgencies.
“The original idea for al Qaeda was that it was this small elite organization that would pull off spectacular attacks is pretty much done,” he said. “Instead, it’s a fighting force, it’s a stateless army.”
And an army needs fighters, even American ones.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday indicated that the alleged militant potentially facing a drone strike was thought to be planning attacks, and referred to a speech President Barack Obama made in May that set out the administration’s policy on drone strikes.
“The original idea for al Qaeda was that it was this small elite organization that would pull off spectacular attacks is pretty much done ... Instead, it’s a fighting force, it’s a stateless army.”
“[Obama] said that when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against the United States, and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should not serve as a shield,” Carney told reporters.
The key phrase in Carney's statement is "actively plotting," an indication that the target would be someone with military training and experience, as opposed to a spokesman or mouthpiece for the terror group.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that since 2009, the United States had “specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen,” Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki may have masterminded a plan to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
The United States was "aware” of three other U.S. citizens who had been killed, though not specifically targeted: Samir Khan, Abdulrahmn al-Awlaki (Anwar al-Awlaki’s son), and Jude Kenan Mohammed.
Wajahat S. Khan of NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.