The killing of al-Qaida's No. 3 leader is unlikely to derail the terror group for long.
Pressured by American drone missile strikes, the militant network has shrugged off similar losses of its top tier leaders and is increasingly relying on new franchises that threaten attacks on the U.S.
The death of Mustafa al-Yazid strikes a short-term blow to a terror group that, like mythology's many-headed Hydra, still has multiple tentacles to continue the fight.
With offshoots in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, al-Qaida has become a more fragmented enemy. And, as shown by the Christmas Day airliner attack, its franchises are becoming more independent, more dangerous and equally intent on targeting America.
Al-Qaida keeps recruiting
Thus even as the U.S. eliminates al-Qaida leaders, the terror group is rapidly inspiring new recruits who are just as eager to attack and kill Americans.
"While we're having some success in putting pressure on them, they're also having a great deal of success radicalizing other parts of the global Islamic jihadist movement to join them in attacking the United States," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center and a former CIA officer.
Al-Yazid, who is also known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, is the seventh person considered by U.S. intelligence to be the No. 3 leader who has been killed or captured since 2001, Riedel said.
"It shows that it's been two things — a very dangerous job, and, secondly, one that you can refill relatively easily," he said.
Al-Yazid, whom al-Qaida described as its top commander in Afghanistan, was killed along with his wife, three daughters, a grandchild and other men, women and children, the group said. He is believed to have been struck down by a CIA drone strike, likely in the past two weeks.
Among al-Yazid's predecessors in the third spot were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who is being held in the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center; Mohammed Atef, who was killed in U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2001; Abu Laith al-Libi, who was killed in a January 2008 drone strike, and Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who was captured and detained in Pakistan.
Loss seen as setback
U.S. officials agree that al-Qaida has become proficient at replacing its vulnerable No. 3 tier.
But they also assert that the loss is severe setback for a group that has relied on al-Yazid as a founding member of al-Qaida and the group's prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He was running al-Qaida's day-to-day operations, and also had a hand in the group's financing, according to U.S. officials.
The success of the drone strikes — the one that apparently killed al-Yazid was among dozens over the past year that have killed hundreds of insurgents — has made it harder for bin Laden and his lieutenants to operate and find safe haven.
U.S. intelligence officials and other experts say al-Qaida has been weakened, both financially and structurally, over the past few years. The terror group is "under more pressure, is facing more challenges and is a more vulnerable organization than at any time" since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Mike Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Leiter told Congress that al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan are shrinking, and that the terror group's leadership losses have hurt its training and plotting.
But at the same time, its allies — such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab in Somalia — remain resilient.
Lethal legacy survives
In its announcement of al-Yazid's death, al-Qaida issued a blunt warning.
"What he left behind will, with permission from Allah, continue to be generous and copious and to produce heroes and raise generations," the terror group said in a message on jihadist websites. "His death will only be a severe curse by his life upon the infidels."
Even British authorities warned in a report to Parliament that eliminating al-Qaida leaders has not made the broader group less lethal.
In fact, U.S. officials are increasingly warning that al-Qaida's outlying, smaller franchises are more likely to plot and wage off-the-cuff, less sophisticated attacks that are harder to detect and prevent. The independent groups, which often rely on their own plotting and financing, are also less predictable and don't have the larger, more organized structure that can more easily be tracked or infiltrated.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, reportedly trained with al-Qaida in Yemen. And the alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who was arrested shortly after the failed terror attempt last month, reportedly received training from insurgents in Pakistan.
The enemy, in fact, is no longer described as just al-Qaida by White House officials. Instead, it is now routinely "al-Qaida and its affiliates."
In a speech last week, John Brennan, the White House's top counterterrorism adviser, warned that as the U.S. strikes al-Qaida, the terror group is increasingly relying on recruits with little training, executing less sophisticated — but lethal — attacks.
"We have long recognized that al-Qaida, its affiliates and those who subscribe to its murderous ideology are a resilient, resourceful and determined enemy," Brennan said.
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