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Al-Qaida goes to the bench, seeks next-generation leader

The White House confirmed the death of deputy al-Qaida leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan, believed to rank second in the organization. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

With the death in Pakistan of al-Qaida No. 2 Abu Yahya al-Libi in a Predator attack early Monday, the terrorist group’s highest councils once again face the daunting task of filling both a leadership void and selecting a next-generation jihadist capable of succeeding current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But despite the obvious dangers that go with a prominent al-Qaida post, counterterrorism experts inside and outside the U.S. government have identified at least five potential next-generation leaders -- three of them former U.S. residents and one an American citizen.

“It would be a mistake for anyone to conclude there is no one on the bench,” said one U.S. official familiar with counterterrorism strategy, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a thinning bench, but there are still bad guys, with bad aspirations in al-Qaida’s core group in Pakistan.  However, these individuals are not as capable and don’t have the profile or following in the wider extremist movement that Abu Yahya or his predecessor, Abu Atiyah, had.”

Deputy al-Qaida leader killed in Pakistan, White House confirms

But Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center and an NBC News analyst, said the candidates to move up into al-Qaida’s senior ranks in the wake of al-Libi’s death all lack his seasoning.

“The real answer is NONE of them are serious by comparison with Abu Yahya across a very wide range of skills and respect,” he said.

Indeed, the U.S. has killed four of the five al-Qaida operatives identified as possible successors to Osama bin Laden at the time of his death on May 1, 2011. The only one who remains alive is Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s longtime No. 2 who assumed command shortly after bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan..

The next generation of al-Qaida leaders, say counterterrorism officials, is an eclectic mix of fighters, propagandists, clerics and administrators.

Those identified as potential next-generation successors are:

FBI via AP file

FBI handout photo of Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah.

-- Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah. The 36-year-old Saudi is known as “Jaffar the Pilot” because he has a pilot’s license. Reportedly the director of operations for al-Qaida. Shukrijumah spent his teenage years in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Broward County, Fla., where he earned a degree in computer science. He is reported to have had roles in the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway and was put on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list a year later. He has been sought by the U.S. since 2003.

-- Jaber A. El-Baneh. A 45-year-old Yemeni known as Jubair, el-Baneh emigrated to New York where he settled for a time in Buffalo.  He was viewed as the mastermind of the Lackawanna Six plot in 2003, having financed and recruited other members. After escaping to Yemen, he was jailed there but sprung in a jailbreak. A senior Obama administration official said last month that el-Baneh has risen to a leadership position in the Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  “I do see, more and more, el-Baneh being a real concern,” said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “He has longtime connections, including to Egyptian extremist elements. And he does seem to be more engaged in trying to support attacks.”

But Leiter, the former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, said that whoever succeeds al-Libi will have to be a member of al-Qaida central, not one of its affiliate terror groups, meaning el-Baneh would not be considered.

AP file

California-born al-Qaida member Adam Gadahn lashes out at the U.S. and its allies in an image taken from a propaganda video posted on Jan. 6, 2008.

-- Adam Gadahn. A 33-year-old American known as Azzam al Amriki, or “Azzam the American,” Gadahn, formerly regarded as an al-Qaida propagandist, is now viewed as a strategist. Materials found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound included correspondence between the al-Qaida leader and the American jihadi. “Bin Laden took his mail,” the U.S. official said of Gadahn. “He’s not just a propagandist --more a strategist-- clearly someone who is not a crazy person. There are a number of people who were there on 9-11.  That clearly gives him some standing.” Gadahn has been charged in California with treason, a capital crime, and giving material aid to terrorism.

-- Sheikh Khalid Abdur Rahman al-Hussainan. A 45-year-old Kuwaiti, known as Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti, al-Hussainan is one of al-Qaida’s newest faces. He’s a charismatic cleric and teacher who’s responsible for “the religious training and the salvation of the soldiers of the al-Qaida network,” according to an al-Qaida publication. Educated at Saudi-Arabian universities, he worked for a time as a scholar at Kuwait´s Ministry for Religious Affairs. He’s considered less doctrinaire than the older generation trainers.  In an interview with an al-Qaida publication, he said he would “converse with them (his students) in an exciting way. We would make them laugh and kid around with them.”  

Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News counterterrorism analyst, notes, “Nobody talks about him, but he appears as a featured speaker on as-Sahab videos nowadays more often than Zawahiri and Abu Yahya combined.” (Click here to watch English subtitled video.)

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--Ali Sayyid Muhamed Mustafa al-Bakri. A 46-year-old Egyptian known as Abd al-Aziz al-Masri, al Bakri is not well known. But the National Counter Terrorism Center, the government’s  primary organization for tracking terrorism,  notes that he is a “member of the al-Qaida Shura council (its governing body) and a close associate of Zawahiri." Al-Bakri is considered dangerous because he has explosives and chemical weapon expertise and has trained al-Qaida operatives as far back as the late 1990s. He attempted to hijack a Pakistani passenger flight in December 2000.  “It is likely that he continues to train al-Qaida terrorists and other extremists,” reports the NCTC.

“Ever since the death of bin Laden, the al-Qaida core we’ve known since 9/11 is the closest it has ever been to a tipping point,” said the U.S. official familiar with counter terrorism strategy.  “This does not mean the group is dead or the threat is gone, but core al-Qaida in Pakistan is on life support, and its chances of recovery are more daunting when they lose a guy like Abu Yahya.

“Undoubtedly, some al-Qaida members will be tapped to try to backfill Abu Yahya’s responsibilities, but in the days that follow, the succession won’t be obvious either to them or Zawahiri.”

Indeed in the past year, mainly through Predator and other drone attacks, the U.S. has been able to “remove from the battlefield” in the words of one senior Pentagon official, one al-Qaida leader after another.

In addition to Abu Yahya, these senior al-Qaida officials have been killed since bin Laden’s death:

  • Ilyas Kashmiri, al-Qaida’s director of external operations, killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on June 3;
  • Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, mastermind of the East Africa embassy bombings and head of al-Qaida in East Africa, died in a shootout by Somali forces on June 11;
  • Abdul Rahman Atiya, bin Laden’s chief of staff,  killed in a drone strike Pakistan on Aug. 22; 
  • Anwar al Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and an American citizen, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on Sept. 30;
  • Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al Quso, mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on May 6 of this year.

Officials across the spectrum of counter terrorism, in intelligence and special operations, say the last year of operations, starting with the killing of bin Laden, has been the most successful since the war on al-Qaida began following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We have decimated them, decimated them,” said the senior Pentagon official.

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.