Al Qaeda's New, New No. 3?

From the jihadist point of view, the No. 3 position in Al Qaeda may offer the promise of martyrdom. But from a job-safety perspective, the post is very risky. As liaison between the highest of the high command and frontline fighters, No. 3's are vulnerable to capture and death. Two men reputed to hold the position—Abu Zubaydah and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed—were among the first Qaeda leaders captured after the attacks, and were also among the first subjected to "enhanced" CIA interrogation techniques (Abu Zubaydah, his lawyers and some independent experts now say, may not have risen to the third-ranking spot). Another reported No. 3, Abu Faraj al Libi, is with Abu Zubaydah and Mohammed at the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay; and a fourth, Hamza Rabia, is thought to be dead, killed by a CIA drone strike in 2005.

Does Al Qaeda have a new, new No. 3? Last week the Associated Press reported that intelligence officials had fingered Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a veteran Egyptian jihadist and Osama bin Laden associate, as having been in indirect contact with Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American recently arrested on charges related to an alleged plot to use homemade explosives to bomb U.S. targets. (The AP later retracted its story.) Four U.S. counterterrorism officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, cannot confirm the link between Yazid and Zazi (one says the connection is "plausible"), two say that it is accurate to characterize Yazid as one of the top remaining bin Laden lieutenants. One official describes him as Al Qaeda's "general manager."

It seems that Yazid has certainly performed as one. According to testimony given in a U.S. court by a former Qaeda member, Yazid, who had been active in militant Egyptian student groups linked indirectly to the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, was an early member of Al Qaeda's "shura council," or board of directors. When bin Laden and his entourage took refuge in the Sudan, the witness said, Yazid, who is also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, was the one who handed out monthly stipends. In the last couple of years, according to a paper by the NEFA Foundation, an antiterrorism think tank, Yazid's face and voice began to appear in "official" Qaeda audio and video messages soliciting funds and new recruits. In August 2008, a military blog cited reports alleging that Yazid had been killed during heavy fighting in a Pakistani tribal area; neither American nor Qaeda authorities, however, confirmed those reports. Last week one of the counterterrorism officials expressed confidence that Yazid was still around. "He ain't dead," said the official.