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After drone attack on al-Qaida planner, is Zawahiri next? Before the election?

AFP - Getty Images file

Ayman al Zawahiri, the longtime No. 2 to Osama bin Laden.

By Robert Windrem
NBC News

With the successful Predator attack on al-Qaida operative Aslam Awan inside Pakistan, al-Qaida has lost, in the words of a senior U.S. official last night, "a senior external operations planner who was working on attacks against the West. His death reduces al-Qaida's thinning bench of another operative devoted to plotting the death of innocent civilians."

Awan is believed to have been somewhat close to Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida since shortly after Osama Bbn Laden's death on May 1. Although U.S. officials would not place a number on Awan's rank within al-Qaida, he was believed to have been involved in planning attacks, putting him in the high command.

But what of Zawahiri? The U.S. pursuit of him remains a high priority. (And his killing or capture would be regarded as a political coup for the Obama administration in a campaign year.) The U.S. has targeted Zawahiri five times by his own count, going back to the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A U.S. counterterrorism official tells NBC News that there's limited information on the status of U.S. planning against Zawahiri. "It's certainly not impossible" for an attack on Zawahiri to be attempted. "But he has clearly hung very low since May, with fundamentally no communications," said the official.

Evan Kohlmann, MSNBC analyst and counterterrorism consultant, reports that since bin Laden's death, al-Qaida's media arm has released eight recordings of al-Zawahiri, not all of which can be easily dated. At least one and possibly two of them were probably recorded prior to bin Laden being killed, then released after his death. The most recent one came out on December 1. In that video, Zawahiri boasted that al-Qaida had seized aid worker Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old American, in Lahore last August. There's been no proof of life regarding Weinstein since then.

Those recordings are often hand-carried through a network of couriers to ensure Zawahiri's security.

From the archives: Bin Laden dead: Who will lead al-Qaeda?