Why are we always killing al-Qaida's "No. 3" operative?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 1 2010 11:38 AM

Al-Qaida's Rule of Threes

Why are we always killing Osama's "No. 3" operative? 

U.S intelligence officials have confirmedthat al-Qaida's "third-ranking operative," Sheik Saeed al-Masri, is believed to have been killed in a Predator drone attack in Pakistan within the past two weeks. In 2005, Timothy Noah noted the bizarre frequency with which the military seems to eliminate the terrorist network's "No. 3" man.

Some jobs just seem impossible to keep filled. Hollywood studio head. United States ambassador to Iraq. Editor of the New York Daily News. Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Advertisement

To these we must now add "al-Qaida's No. 3 official." John Crimmings, proprietor of the New York-based  Blogenlust, has been keeping track of al-Qaida third-in-commands captured or killed by our side, and counts  no fewer than four.

There's Hamza Rabia, reportedly killed Thursday by an American missile.  According to  MSNBC, Rabia is said by two unidentified counterterrorism officials to be

head of al-Qaida's foreign operations, possibly as senior as the No. 3 [italics Chatterbox's] in the terrorist group, just below al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri. They are believed to be hiding in a rugged area along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

Before Rabia there was Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who as of May 5 was  reported by Fox News to be held in Pakistani custody. Libbi (no relation to the recently indicted White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby) was said not to be "head of foreign operations," as Rabia reportedly was, but rather to be plotting attacks on the United States. Perhaps it amounts to the same thing. At any rate, al-Libbi, Fox reported, was "believed by U.S. counterterrorism officials to be Usama bin Laden's No. 3 man."

Before al-Libbi there was Abu Zubaida, whom Ruth Wedgwood of Yale Law School  called"the number three in al-Qaida" on PBS's NewsHour. We don't seem to know much about Zubaida's job description beyond the fact that he was, as the Washington Post  put it, "involved with the Sept. 11 plot," which is a bit circular; of course the No. 3 guy in al-Qaida would be involved in the Sept. 11 plot.

Before Abu Zubaida there was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the "alleged mastermind" of the Sept. 11 attacks,  according to Fox News, and also "Al Qaeda's No. 3 figure." Mohammed is also apparently al-Qaida's treasurer, having disbursed cash to Mohammed Atta. In one respect, Mohammed's job description is identical to Zubaida's: It  apparently requires  that the employee be subjected by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators to "water boarding," a form of torture—ahem, I mean interrogation—in which the subject is made to think he is drowning. No doubt the pension benefits have been adjusted upward to compensate.

The obvious question here is whether these four people successively held the position of No. 3 in al-Qaida—in which case, as Jon Stewart  has observed  on The Daily Show, the job would appear to be "sort of a raw deal"—or whether counterterrorism officials are inclined to call any reasonably high-ranking Tom, Dick, or Harry "al-Qaida's No. 3" simply for the purposes of propaganda. Another possibility is that our side does this for the purposes of psy-ops, to create confusion among the al-Qaida rank and file about their own organization's true hierarchy. (It isn't like you can get Bin Laden to adjudicate turf wars every time confusion arises over the chain of command.) Yet another possibility is that al-Qaida's management hierarchy is ludicrously top-heavy, and that "No. 3" is a position held simultaneously by many people who in a similarly top-heavy corporation would be labeled "vice president." No matter what the explanation, it's clear that the sweet spot in al-Qaida management is No. 1 and No. 2. After that, job security seems only slightly better than that enjoyed by suicide bombers. My advice: Go with Procter & Gamble instead.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.