BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, U.S. intelligence announced that they'd killed Al-Qaeda’s number three operative, who goes under the nom de guerre Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, in a drone strike in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s top two positions are filled, of course, by Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who have so far eluded the U.S. But the Al-Qaeda hunters do have an impressive record of eliminating number three. In fact, according to The Washington Post, they've netted the third man 10 times. Recently, Slate columnist Tim Noah recalled that he first noticed this pattern back in 2005, after the Bush administration claimed credit for 4 number threes. What exactly is the deal with number three?
TIMOTHY NOAH: How many number three guys -
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - do they have? Is this like a corporation that has about 27 vice-presidents, or is this one of those jobs that they just can't seem to keep filled, like Defense against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwart’s School, or the drummer for Spinal Tap?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And who are they? Do they have anything in common?
TIMOTHY NOAH: I think that the number three job is a more operational job, so you’re more vulnerable to attack. You know, it’s not like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. They're way at the top. They think about big picture stuff. But for like the number three guy, you think it’s easy recruiting suicide bombers and, uh planning terrorist operations? You’re putting your neck on the line every day. So, you know, number three, it really looks to be kind of a lousy job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tim, thank you so much.
TIMOTHY NOAH: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Timothy Noah is a senior writer for Slate. Jarret Brachman is an internationally recognized Al-Qaeda specialist who says that the organization is not a strict hierarchy. There are several number threes, all of whom do different jobs. And though U.S. intelligence may have engaged in some rank inflation when it comes to those previous number threes, the latest, Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, was, arguably, the number one three.
JARRET BRACHMAN: He’s been with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the guy who’s actually running Al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s right-hand man, since the beginning, since the '80s in Egypt. So he was a gatekeeper, he was a financier, he was best friends with the guy in charge, so he was in a very powerful and dominant bureaucratic position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He also served as something of a spokesperson, right?
JARRET BRACHMAN: Well, that's right. He hadn't until around May of 2007. Al-Qaeda trotted him out in their official media. But, more importantly, he started engaging with mainstream Arab media. He conducted media interviews with Al-Jazeera, with Geo-TV. These are organizations that Al-Qaeda does not typically work with anymore. You know, one of the things that I have kind of observed over the past few years is that Al-Qaeda’s transformed from a terrorist organization that uses the media into a media organization that uses terrorism. Al-Qaeda realized it was constrained operationally but that it could get other people to do its job for it, if it could just rally them up enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you've likened some of what they do to American Sunday morning chat shows, like Meet the Press.
JARRET BRACHMAN: Well, exactly. If you think about the Al-Qaeda media network, it’s very much like these Sunday talk shows, where at first you'll have the senior policymaker come out, the headliner. In our world it would be the vice-president. In their world it would be Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sheikh Saeed was another one of these figures. And they would identify kind of the big policy statements. But then after they leave, the roundtable comes on, where you have pundits and commentators trying to make it accessible to the people who are watching. And Al-Qaeda has that cadre of people, too, but they tend to be much more systematic in how they try to translate what the big thinkers say, down to something that resonates with the people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but that’s not the job of Meet the Press.
JARRET BRACHMAN: Well, you know, it is to interpret and to dissect and to analyze and, I think, to hold the policymakers’ feet to the fire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I assume these Al-Qaeda pundits aren't holding the Al-Qaeda policymakers’ feet to the fire, right?
JARRET BRACHMAN: In fact, some of them do. Some of them, I agree, are very sycophantic and kind of just pander, but others are very critical. In fact, one of these pundits criticized bin Laden on 9/11, and he said 9/11 would have been a success had Al-Qaeda done a couple other things right. So some of them are very critically minded, and they tend to be among the most popular. So, you know, I think Sheikh Saeed sat among the big policymakers, but he came under fire just as much as Zawahiri or bin Laden have from the public movement and from these pundits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, Jarret, thank you very much.
JARRET BRACHMAN: Thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jarret Brachman is a specialist on Al-Qaeda and the author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice.