It is believed that, on December 1st, a CIA Predator UAV fired two Hellfire missiles that killed Abu Hamza Rabia, one of the top half dozen (sometimes called the "number 3 man") al Qaeda leaders. Rabia was a key associate of al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zarqawi, and had been responsible for two attempts on President Pervez Musharraf. This strike, which took place in Pakistan, means that bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi will have to find their third person for that slot in a period of seven months (Rabia's predecessor, Abu Faraj Farj al-Liby, was captured in May). This is not the first time that a CIA Predator has scored a kill - in November, 2002, a CIA Predator killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole as he and five other al Qaeda operatives were driving in their car.
This new vacancy in senior leadership positions reflects one of al Qaeda's growing problems. As top-echelon elements of al Qaeda are killed, incapacitated, or captured, the talent pool dries up. Already, al Qaeda has been hobbled by attacks in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Indonesia which have killed far more Moslem civilians than intended non-Moslem targets. As a result, al Qaeda has suffered a string of defeats as those who would have supported them instead drop a dime.
This has led to all but one of al Qaeda's original Saudi leadership ending up either dead or in custody. The new al-Qaeda structure is composed of members that are primarily in their 20s. These twenty-something terrorists do not have the experience or training of their predecessors. In Jordan, only Lawrence Hamid Rashid Muhanna is still at large. Al Qaeda's senior leadership has remained somewhat intact, but many of their on-scene operators are being captured or killed. Al Qaeda's murder-suicide bombings kill off the operatives who manage to pull them off, another way the talent pool is depleted.
The other concern for al Qaeda is that eventually, taking out (killing or preferably capturing) people like Rabia and al Liby means that eventually the really big fish (Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri) will have to start talking one way or another. Talking means that there is a better chance for the American intelligence community to provide actionable intelligence. The depletion of al Qaeda's talent pool also means that ineffective leaders like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who tenure as head of al-Qaeda in Iraq has led to the alienation of Iraqi Sunnis and Jordanians due to attacks that have primarily killed Moslems, cannot be replaced.
What is happening to al Qaeda is similar to how the United States has pursued the drug cartels (most notably, the Medellin drug cartel) and the Mafia families (like John Gotti's Gambino family). This sort of operation takes time (for instance, it took six years to convict Gotti after he ascended to the head of the Gambino family in 1985, and four years of concerted effort to kill Pablo Escobar after he ordered an airline bombing in 1989). As the talented leaders go (either by being killed or captured and kept on ice in places like Guantanamo Bay), al Qaeda will similarly be reduced to impotence. - Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)