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Beyond Yemen, Awlaki: Look for core Al Qaeda members outside the hot spots

The killing of the American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen is another success in fighting Al Qaeda. But core leaders of the group who are likely planning the next big attack are probably operating outside the hot spots of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen / October 3, 2011

Cambridge, Mass.

The United States scored another serious blow to Al Qaeda with the killing of the extremist American-born Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen last week. But the US and its allies should also pay attention to longtime Al Qaeda figures who are probably operating outside of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

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True, the terrorist group is greatly diminished – especially since the spectacular raid that killed Osama bin Laden and yielded rich intelligence. Al Qaeda’s future as a global terrorist movement is in doubt.

I am concerned, however, by the significance that America and its allies ascribe to next-generation leaders recently captured or killed in Pakistan. The intelligence community knows its stuff, and has enjoyed ringing successes, but one big mystery is this: Where does senior Al Qaeda core member Saif al-Adl come into the picture? He was named as Mr. Bin Laden’s temporary replacement. Now, he apparently isn’t listed on the organizational chart of Al Qaeda's hierarchy.

Aside from top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. Adl is arguably the most experienced, senior leader remaining in the organization. He has deep chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear connections and knows the history of the terrorist group’s nuclear and biological weapons projects from day one. At the time of 9/11, the former Egyptian Army captain was regarded as the number three man in the organization – its chief of operations.

Saif al-Adl is not the only key target who has extensive experience with weapons of mass destruction. Last year, Saudi national Adnan Shukrijumah was named publicly as Al Qaeda’s external operations chief. In this role, he is responsible for planning attacks against the United States. And yet, based on the latest media reporting, Mr. Shukrijumah, who is on the FBI 10 most wanted list, also has been mysteriously bypassed on the group’s organizational chart.

Lacking insider knowledge of the latest machinations within Mr. Zawahiri’s restructuring of Al Qaeda, I can offer two explanations for this disturbing anomaly: Either Adl and Shukrijumah have been marginalized in Al Qaeda’s post-Bin Laden leadership hierarchy – or they have been replaced so they can completely dedicate themselves to planning current operations.

The latter is the most likely.

At large: key terrorists with WMD expertise

No one trying to manage an organization, meet people, recruit operatives, conduct fund raising, and run the daily business affairs of Al Qaeda is a good candidate to plan the next major attack. It simply doesn’t make sense for a group that has been so severely depleted in its senior ranks to marginalize dedicated jihadists in favor of far less experienced, unproven operatives. But it is logical that Zawahiri may have tasked his most experienced men to manage his group’s resurgence – by planning the next big thing.

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