By Robert Windrem
A senior al-Qaida official and potential successor to the group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed Friday morning in a Predator drone strike, according to reports on jihadi web forums and U.S. officials.
Sheikh Khalid Bin Abdul Rehman Al-Hussainan, aka Abu-Zaid al Kuwaiti, was killed in Pakistan while eating breakfast, according to the accounts. The 46-year-old cleric was seen as part of the “very top tier" of al-Qaida's remaining leaders in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden, according to one expert on the terror group.
The news was first announced on an al-Qaida web forum early Friday. “We celebrate to you the news of the martyrdom of the working scholar Shaykh Khalid al-Hussainan (Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti) while eating his Suhoor (dawn time) meal, and we ask Allah to accept him in paradise," a post said.
Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News counterterrorism analyst, said al-Hussainan was at the forefront of a new wave of al-Qaida leadership.
“That's a big gap in the leadership,” said Kohlmann, who is also a Justice Department consultant. “He was the last senior Al-Qaida leader in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area who was, one, from the Arabian Peninsula and, two, who had serious clerical credentials. Now there is no obvious publicly recognizable candidate left to succeed Zawahiri.”
In recent years, al-Hussainan was seen in numerous al-Qaida videos offering religious training to the group’s operatives. The videos were widely circulated by al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s media wing. He also authored several books of religious thoughts.
The U.S. killed three other up-and-coming members of the terror group’s next generation leadership in the months after bin Laden was killed in a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011. Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of a Pakistani group associated with al-Qaeda was killed June 3. Atiyah Abd-al Rahman, bin Laden’s chief of staff, was killed on Aug. 22 and Ayman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was a leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed Sept. 30. US officials say that hints about their whereabouts were found in materials gathered by the Navy SEALs in the raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Al-Hussainan is the highest ranking al-Qaida official to be killed since those leaders were killed.
Mike Leiter, the former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center and an NBC News analyst, said it’s important to keep going after top officials to keep al-Qaida off balance.
“We are taking out the generation following those left from the 9-11 era leadership,” Leiter said. “If you can get into this level of leadership consistently, it becomes very difficult for al-Qaida in Pakistan to become a serious threat to the homeland.”
The fact that the attack was carried out by a Predator shows that the US intends to keep using the drones to kill al-Qaida, despite criticism from Pakistani officials and U.S. critics, said Roger Cressey, former deputy director of the White House counter terrorism center and an NBC News analyst.
“Anyone who believes that the drone program has run its course needs to know that people like al Kuwaiti are still out there,” he said.
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