The death of Mustafa Abu Yazid (aka Sheikh Saeed al Masri), who was killed in an airstrike earlier this month, is a significant blow to al Qaeda. Terrorists don’t come with more established credentials than Yazid. He served side-by-side with Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two, since at least the early 1980s when the two were implicated in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
After spending time in jail together, Yazid and Zawahiri made their way to Afghanistan. There, they were instrumental in al Qaeda’s evolution from a “local” guerilla insurgency organization focused on assisting the mujahideen’s anti-Soviet cause to the world’s most infamous international terrorist organization. Yazid participated in the terror empire’s operations since the very beginning.
It is for this reason that Yazid’s death provides a good occasion to revisit two analytical errors that have infected coverage of the terrorist network.
The first error involves the West’s ability to assess dissent within al Qaeda and the Taliban. According to the 9/11 Commission, Yazid objected to the September 11 attacks on tactical grounds. The Commission portrays Yazid and several other top al Qaeda commanders as agreeing with Taliban honcho Mullah Omar, who believed that an attack on American soil would lead to a devastating counterattack. Omar feared that the sleeping giant would be awoken, and the response would lead to the loss of Afghanistan just as the Taliban was consolidating and expanding its control over the war-torn nation.
There is a temptation to seize on any disagreements (in particular, between the Taliban and al Qaeda) as foreshadowing a breakup. But what is truly interesting about this anecdote is just how much dissent was and is allowed within Osama bin Laden's organization. While Yazid and other top al Qaeda leaders objected to al Qaeda’s most important operation, it did not lead to a schism between them and bin Laden. On the contrary, Yazid and the others continued to faithfully serve their terror master.
As for Mullah Omar, he passed on the opportunity to turn over Osama bin Laden even after September 11, 2001. As a result, his greatest fear was realized. (Omar’s Taliban does, of course, have control over portions of Afghanistan today and threatens to capture more. But still, Afghanistan was initially lost, just as Yazid, Omar and others predicted.)
The point is that while there was dissent within al Qaeda, and between al Qaeda and the Taliban, it did not drive them apart. This is important to remember since the idea that the Taliban can be cleaved from al Qaeda is floated from time to time.
The second error has to do with how some within the CIA misjudged al Qaeda’s evolution. Al Qaeda has always participated in joint ventures with like-minded Islamist terrorist organizations. Osama bin Laden’s most significant partner in this regard is and always was Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).
The EIJ partnered with bin Laden in the 1980s. Zawahiri himself played an instrumental role in bin Laden’s development. Yazid, who was another EIJ leader, was part of bin Laden’s inner circle for nearly two decades, if not longer, as well.
During the embassy bombing's trial, an al Qaeda member named Jamal al Fadl testified that Yazid was part of bin Laden’s elite Shura (consultation) council and the head of al Qaeda’s finances as early as 1993.
Why is this important? Some within the CIA, including former analyst Paul Pillar, claim that the EIJ was not really part of al Qaeda until years later when the EIJ formally “merged” with bin Laden’s organization. (Proposed dates for the formal merger range from 1998 to 2001.)
This does not make any sense. Yazid was a top EIJ terrorist and was already in control of al Qaeda’s payroll in 1993. That is how well integrated the EIJ and bin Laden’s group were years prior to their formal merger. It is a pseudo-intellectual contrivance, then, to suggest that the EIJ was not really al Qaeda at the time (when the EIJ was casing the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, controlling the payroll, running security for Osama bin Laden, and providing strategic and tactical guidance at the highest levels).
Yazid’s career demonstrates that the analytic tradecraft practiced by some within the CIA was woefully inadequate even after the September 11 attacks.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.