The U.S. drone strike that killed the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the global terrorist group’s second-in-command — is unlikely to slow the group’s deadly operations in Yemen but is expected to have a deep and lasting effect on the struggling global operations of “al Qaeda prime” — the core group that Osama bin Laden founded and led until his death in 2011.
Counterterrorism analysts stressed Tuesday that Nasir al-Wuhayshi’s activities in Yemen were only part of the reason that the U.S. intelligence community hunted him down. Far more important was that al-Wuhayshi, who once served as bin Laden’s personal secretary, has been known since 2013 to have served as the general manager of al Qaeda prime’s worldwide network from his perch in Yemen.
“The open question today is, ‘Who fills his role in al Qaeda global?’” said Katherine Zimmerman, the lead al Qaeda analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. “Wuhayshi was uniquely positioned in Yemen, kind of a geostrategic position for al Qaeda. He is a veteran operative, he was at bin Laden’s side from 1998 through 2001 or so.”
“That human network has been significantly degraded over the years by counterterrorism operations,” she said. “It’s not readily apparent who would replace him.”
The 38-year-old Yemeni native “had the cache of being the aide de camp or personal secretary for Osama bin Laden, and that gave him currency far outside of Yemen in terms of leadership capability,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who writes extensively on Islamic terrorism for the foundation’s Long War Journal.
While bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahri remains in charge of al Qaeda prime — and is believed to be hiding in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan — al-Wuhayshi’s death raises questions about the group’s viability as the top player on the global jihadi stage.
President Obama’s National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the drone strike was “a major blow” to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), widely regarded as the terrorist network’s most dangerous affiliate organization, as well as to al Qaeda “more broadly.”
Separate strike in Libya
While the administration celebrated the success of the Yemen strike, it was less clear whether a separate strike carried out Saturday night in Libya had hit its target.
Administration officials confirmed Tuesday that the Libya strike was aimed at Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran operative in the North Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Libyan military sources initially said the strike killed Belmokhtar along with several members of Ansar al-Shariah — a local extremist offshoot that U.S. officials have blamed for the 2012 attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
Officials at the Pentagon and the State Department would not confirm Belmokhtar’s death in the strike after Ansar al-Shariah reportedly denied that he was killed.
Belmokhtar was charged in U.S. federal court with crimes tied to the AQIM terrorist attack that killed 37 hostages, including three Americans, at an Algerian gas facility in 2013, but the Obama administration decided instead to target him with drones.
Reuters described Belmokhtar as a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan and Algeria’s 1990s Islamist war who gained prominence as a supplier of arms to Islamist groups and as a trafficker of cigarettes, which gained him the nickname “Mister Marlboro” among the local population in the Sahara.
Opening for Islamic State?
Analysts described al-Wuhayshi as a higher-value terrorist target and described his death as the biggest blow to the organization since bin Laden was killed four years ago by a U.S. Special Forces raid in Pakistan.
He was imprisoned without charge until he escaped 2006, and later emerged as a top player in AQAP. When bin Laden was killed in May 2011, al-Wuhayshi reportedly warned the West not to fool itself about the group’s demise and that a far more intense period of global terrorism was coming.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could try to seize on al-Wuhayshi’s death as proof that al Qaeda is on its last legs. The Islamic State has spent the past year trying to turn young jihadis in Yemen, North Africa and beyond away from al Qaeda in favor of joining the newer, Syria- and Iraq-based movement.
Mr. Joscelyn rejected the idea that al-Wuhayshi’s death will create a significant opening for the Islamic State.
AQAP remains strong
The Yemen-based outfit has been blamed for the famed “underwear bomb” plot to blow up a U.S. commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009. It was in global headlines more recently when its members claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks that killed 12 people at the Paris satirical magazine.
Washington has repeatedly targeted AQAP militants in drone strikes in Yemen and killed several commanders, including Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack.
An Associated Press report Tuesday said AQAP has exploited months of fighting between Saudi Arabia-backed loyalists of Yemen’s exiled government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In the chaos of the fighting, AQAP is seen to have consolidated its grip on Yemen’s Hadramawt province and its capital, Mukalla — a city of more than 200,000.
The nation’s warring factions were in Geneva on Tuesday for a second day of U.N.-sponsored peace talks, but AQAP appeared to have little interest. By Tuesday afternoon, the group released a video eulogy of al-Wuhayshi, announcing that his successor had been named.
Qasim al-Raymi, a co-founder of AQAP in early 2009 and currently its top commander of local military operations, has been tapped to head the group, but there was no indication that al-Raymi can fill al-Wuhayshi’s other role as a charismatic figure on the global stage.
At the same time, Mrs. Zimmerman said, “the short-term effect is that we have taken out a key link between all the al Qaeda groups. Wuhayshi’s role was sort of as a coordinator across the board for al Qaeda global.”
She suggested that additional strikes could be forthcoming.
“What we see after these sorts of strikes is there is that reshuffling where sometimes we see leaders move to new hideouts if they’re worried that their position has been betrayed and they are now at risk,” she said. “That movement is opportunity to strike.”
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