I touched on the capture of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri) when it occurred, but now that it has been confirmed by both the US government and al-Qaeda itself, I thought it might be best to expand a bit on just how great it was that we were able to capture him.
However, just as I was about to do this I came across more good news - the killing of Hamza Rabia by a CIA missile and the suicide of Abu Omar al-Saif in Dagestan to avoid being captured by Russian forces. So let me touch on each of the three men to help convey what an enormous success all of these have been.
Mustafa Setmariam Nasar
In a word, he was one of the most viable successors to bin Laden other than al-Zawahiri within the senior al-Qaeda leadership. An old-time member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Nasar was apparently active in international terrorism at least as far back as 1985, when most of the future al-Qaeda leadership was busy fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. He was a strategist, an ideologue, a bombmaker, and commanded a great deal of respect among the al-Qaeda rank-and-file. A charismatic figure, he spent the last several years writing Dawaa lil Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyyah (A Call for Global Islamic Resistance), a 1,610 page al-Qaeda strategy document that outlines the group's future plans in detail in accordance with Saif al-Adel's 7-phase plan for al-Qaeda's victory. If Dr. Paz's analysis of al-Qaeda supporter Abu Mohammed al-Hilali's own commentary on the Sinai bombings is accurate, we are likely already seeing the first products of Nasar's magnum opus.
The capture of Nasar is also important because he has been identified in media reports as having been actively involved with the al-Qaeda leadership in Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq, meaning that he can provide the US with actionable intelligence on who is doing what, why, as well as the degree of coordination between them. His capture is thus a major blow to al-Qaeda and will be of major benefit to the US and its allies. It is no small exaggeration in my view to describe Nasar's capture as being one of the most severe blows to al-Qaeda since the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003.
According to both US and Pakistani media reports, a CIA missile attack on an al-Qaeda safehouse in Asorai in Waziristan has resulted in the killing of Hamza Rabia, who is an Egyptian rather than a Syrian as suggested in the Dawn account.
In order to understand Rabia's significance, some history of al-Qaeda in Pakistan is useful. After al-Qaeda's operations were disrupted in Afghanistan, the group's military committee appears to have splintered into two autonomous nodes, one based in eastern Iran and the other in northern Pakistan. Working independently but in coordination with one another, these two leadership groups appear to have since supervised the network's regrouping and reorganization efforts, such as the most recent decision to appoint Khalid Habib and Abd Hadi al-Iraqi as the new leaders of the network in Afghanistan to augment their most active domestic allies Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in some cases even using tactics modeled after those used by Zarqawi in Iraq.
With the help of Pakistan's existing terrorist infrastructure, the Pakistani al-Qaeda leadership has tried, with varying degrees of success and failure, to reestablish the group's terrorist training capacity by outsourcing its training programs to allied groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), maintain alliances with disaffected members of the Pakistani military and intelligence community, mount a domestic terrorist campaign against General Musharraf, and support the terrorist campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kashmir as well as other locations. Before his capture in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the undisputed head of the Pakistan leadership, but following his loss an ad-hoc council seems to have sprung up consisting of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Hamza Rabia, Amjad Farooqi, Osama Nazir, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, and at least half a dozen other Pakistani and foreign al-Qaeda big-shots. As I noted here, it's probably incorrect to describe Rabia as being the #3 leader in al-Qaeda, but he certainly was the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, which puts him in a rather unique position to do all of us here some major damage if one stops to appreciate what could happen should several high-ranking Pakistani officials be assassinated - and let me stress that Rabia and his co-conspirators have come damned close to killing General Musharraf on a number of occasions.
Abu Omar al-Saif
This tidbit comes by way of Evan Kohlmann over at the Counterterrorism Blog, who recounts al-Saif's final moments in Dagestan as follows:
According to various reports from credible mujahideen sources, Abu Omar Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Saif (a.k.a. Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Saif al-Jaber)--a top tier Saudi Arabian Al-Qaida commander in Chechnya and personal military advisor to Shamil Basayev--has been killed during a Russian counterterrorism operation in neighboring Dagestan. Unable to escape after Russian soldiers backed by helicopters surrounded his temporary hideout, Abu Omar allegedly detonated an explosive device he was carrying and collapsed the building on top of himself.
Good riddance, in my opinion. While some observers may find it odd that al-Saif would kill himself rather than be taken prisoner given the fact that the majority of al-Qaeda leaders don't do this, it should be noted that most al-Qaeda leaders captured by the US aren't facing a Russian interrogation either ...
In any case, al-Saif is a Saudi (anybody surprised?) and has been active in Chechnya at least as far back as 1995, which means that he even predates the arrival of bin Laden's protege Khattab. As Kohlmann notes in his extremely useful chart that identifies the al-Qaeda leaders operating in Chechnya under the banner of the Islamic Army of the Caucasus, al-Saif was formerly the Chief Justice of the Mujahideen Sha'riah Courts in Chechnya and is usually referenced as the main conduit from which cash flows from al-Qaeda's Gulf backers into the pockets of Basayev and his followers. As with a number of other al-Qaeda figures active in Chechnya, al-Saif has supported Zarqawi's jihad against US forces in Iraq and has appeared in a number of al-Qaeda propaganda videos since 9/11.
Now given that this scum financed group that was responsible for what happened in Beslan, I'm not particularly inclined to shed any tears for him. Still, it is worth noting that the agenda that he, Basayev, and the late Khattab first plotted to achieve back in 1999 as far as the establishment of an Islamic emirate stretching across the entire North Caucasus is already, as much because of Russian brutality as any genius on their part, is coming into focus and the implications are quite disturbing. One thing that'll be interesting to learn is whether or not the US had anything to do with assisting the Russians in locating al-Saif, given both the precedent of our helping them to hunt down Ruslan Gelayev and al-Saif's status in al-Qaeda.
Either way, the capture of Nasar and the deaths of Rabia and al-Saif represent both a potent blow to the enemy and an impressive counter-terrorist victory for the US and its allies.