KABUL (AFP) – Al-Qaeda has announced the death of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, its number three leader and Osama bin Laden’s one-time top money man, in what would be a major blow to the global terror network.
US monitoring groups said the death of Yazid, who was the leader of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and its liaison with the Taliban for three years, was announced by the group in a message to jihadist websites on Monday.
“We have strong reason to believe that’s true, and that (Yazid) was killed recently in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” a US official said. “In terms of counterterrorism, this would be a big victory.”
Yazid, one of a number of Egyptians in the higher echelons of Al-Qaeda, was a founding member of the network and a former treasurer to bin Laden who was accused of channelling money to some of the September 11 hijackers.
Yazid, also known as Sheikh Said al-Masri, would be one of the top Al-Qaeda leaders to be killed since US President Barack Obama took office in January last year.
“Al-Masri was the group’s chief operating officer, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning,” the US official said.
“He was also the organisation’s prime conduit to bin Laden and Zawahiri,” he said referring to Al-Qaeda number two and fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. “He was key to Al-Qaeda’s command and control.”
The Al-Qaeda message carried by the SITE group that monitors Islamist websites did not give details about the circumstances of the death of Yazid other than to speak of his “martyrdom”.
But it said the message posted on jihadist forums on May 31 said his wife, three of his daughters, his granddaughter, and other men, women and children were killed.
“His death will only be a severe curse by his life upon the infidels. The response is near. That is sufficient,” according to the message translated by SITE.
Some US media reports said Yazid was killed in a US drone strike in the tribal areas on the Afghan border, where the United States has been waging a covert drone war against militants in areas outside direct government control.
“Though these terrorists remain extremely dangerous and determined to strike at the United States, the removal from the battlefield of top leaders like al-Masri is further proof that the tribal areas are not quite the safe haven Al-Qaeda and its allies thought them to be,” the US official said.
Analysts said several of Yazid’s predecessors as Al-Qaeda number three had been killed or captured, while there were rumours in 2008 that he himself had been killed.
Yazid, 54, was on the list of individuals, organisations and charities whose assets were frozen by the US Treasury in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, it was Yazid who transferred funds via Dubai for Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Wal al-Shehri, three of the September 11 hijackers who flew aircraft into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The bearded Yazid appeared in a number of videos released by Al-Qaeda since he first emerged as head of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in May 2007, wearing thick glasses and a white turban.
A former member of the Islamic Jihad movement in Egypt, he had close links with Zawahiri and served time in jail over the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
“This is one of the most significant blows against Al-Qaeda in recent years and its impact will be felt by the group,” said Ben Venzke of intelligence analysis group IntelCenter.
He said Yazid ran Al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“While the loss of al-Yazid will have an impact, the group will likely maintain its operational tempo in terms of attacks and other activities.”
According to Yasser al-Sirri, the director of the London-based Islamic Observatory, Yazid was born in December 1955 in Egypt’s Nile Delta region.
Sirri said at the time of Yazid’s appearance in May 2007 that he was “trusted by bin Laden, for whom he ran businesses in Sudan” when the founder of Al-Qaeda lived in exile there before Khartoum expelled him in 1996.
“Yazid is known for his integrity and management skills, but has never taken organisational or military responsibility at the heart of Al-Qaeda, of which he was one of the founders in 1989,” Sirri said.
Yazid’s last public statement was in a message released on May 4, when he delivered eulogies for Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri, the two top Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq who were killed in April.