Score: Al Qaeda's operational chief in Pakistan liquidated in drone attack

A 9/11 anniversary present from the CIA. Had he lived, this guy might have been set to inherit some of the duties of Atiyah al-Rahman, the group’s overall operational chief and new number two, who was killed in another drone strike a few weeks ago. But there’s no way to be sure: We’re now killing these degenerates in such quick succession that the next-in-lines are being liquidated before they can fill the vacancies above them.

If you had asked me in January 2009 what the most successful aspect of Obama’s presidency would be, I would not have guessed “destroying Al Qaeda.” Credit where it’s due.

A senior administration official tells ABC News that officials have confirmed that al Qaeda’s chief of Pakistan operations, Abu Hafs al-Shahri, was killed earlier this week in Waziristan, Pakistan.

The administration does not confirm the use of predator drones, but on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a drone fired two missiles at a car as it entered a compound in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, killing three militants.

“Abu Hafs’ death will further degrade al Qaeda’s ability to recover from the death last month of AQ’s number two, Atiyah, because of his operations experience and connections within the group,” the senior administration official said, referring to ‘Atiyah ‘Abd al-Rahman, the deputy leader of al Qaeda killed in August.

Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for intelligence, noted a few days ago that we’ve now killed eight of Al Qaeda’s top 20 leaders — this year alone. That’s remarkable, and offhand I can’t think of any pat explanation for the sudden burst of success. Obviously the data recovered from Bin Laden’s compound has been helpful (it was probably crucial in locating Atiyah, who was Osama’s right-hand man), but it’s hard to believe that accounts for all eight operations. There’s been a major leap forward in either human intelligence or intel technology that’s made it considerably easier to track these guys, but unless I missed an article online somewhere, that leap has never been explained. That’s for the best given the security implications, but it’s still surprising.

Needless to say, there’s more value to these strikes than simply neutralizing a bad guy. Says counterterror expert Bruce Hoffman to WaPo, “The people still out there have to be convinced their time is near and are spending more time thinking about that than planning operations; it realigns their priorities from attacks to survival.” Indeed — and that goes all the way to the top:

NBC News reported Tuesday that a senior U.S. intelligence official believed that al-Zawahri was “constantly on the run” as he tried to avoid being targeted by CIA drone strikes or a special forces raid. NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski said al-Zawahri was focusing on “just trying to stay alive” and had no role in any al-Qaida operations.

The Pakistani official, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media, said that “solid intelligence reports based on recent al-Qaida arrests” suggested that al-Zawahri had “gone either to Yemen or Somalia.”

An Afghan Taliban source also said al-Zawahri had left the region, NBC News reported.

The Pentagon doubts that he’s left Pakistan but doesn’t doubt that he’s spending most of his time these days trying not to die. Savor the thought of Al Qaeda’s first weapon, fear, being used to such expert effect against it. Vickers said a few days ago that he thinks AQ could completely lose its operational capacity within two years. At the rate we’re going, it’d be an achievement if they lasted that long.

Exit question: Why wouldn’t Zawahiri try to relocate to Yemen? Somalia’s a bad choice because he’d stick out too much, but in Yemen he’d be an Arab among Arabs. Granted, it’s dangerous for him to try to run lest the CIA pick up his scent, but the Bin Laden raid proved that it’s dangerous to stay put too. Yemen’s also where the action is jihad-wise: By almost universal acclaim, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninula is the single most dangerous arm of AQ these days, especially given the country’s instability after months of Arab Spring protests. If he doesn’t go to Yemen, he risks being usurped by Awlaki and AQAP, whereas if he does go, he reasserts himself as international leader of the movement. What does he have to lose? We’re going to kill him eventually either way, and if he makes it all the way to Yemen, he’ll have to worry about fewer drones than he does now. Run for it, jerky!