In Yemen, U.S. Reportedly Kills an Influential Militant

4 MINS READJun 15, 2015 | 21:41 GMT
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula chief Nasir al-Wahayshi is pictured in southern Abyan province in 2012.

Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a U.S. drone strike June 12 in Mukalla, Yemen, sources in Yemen began reporting June 15. Al-Wahayshi, a highly respected militant, is the No. 2 leader of the global al Qaeda network; his death would make him the most prominent jihadist killed since Osama bin Laden. Though his death would represent a big loss for al Qaeda, the group has several other seasoned leaders who can step up to fill the void.

Al-Wahayshi, who is also known by the honorific name, or kunya, Abu Basir, is an ethnic Yemeni who spent time in Afghanistan, where he allegedly worked closely with bin Laden. According to some reports, al-Wahayshi was bin Laden's personal secretary there. Al-Wahayshi fled Afghanistan following the battle at Tora Bora and went to Iran, where he was arrested by the government in late 2001 or early 2002. Al-Wahayshi was repatriated to Yemen in 2003 through an extradition deal with the Iranian government and subsequently escaped from a high-security prison outside Sanaa in February 2006 along with 22 other jihadists. 

Jihadist activity in Yemen changed markedly after the prison break. In September 2006, oil facilities came under attack with dual vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). This was the first use of VBIEDs on land in Yemen. (Large IEDs in boats were used in the USS Cole and Limburg attacks.) 

Al-Wahayshi was able to establish control of Yemen's ramshackle network of jihadists by mid-2007, bringing a resurgence to jihadist operations in the country. By January 2009, the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda franchise had fled Saudi Arabia for Yemen and declared their loyalty to al-Wahayshi. Notably, the Saudi contingent swore allegiance to al-Wahayshi, indicating that the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni jihadist entities was not a merger of equals: A hierarchy had been established for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with al-Wahayshi at the top in testament to his leadership.

Indeed, we are not the only people who have identified al-Wahayshi as an exceptional individual. Following the death of bin Laden, he was reportedly promoted to the second in command of al Qaeda globally. He was also highly respected outside Yemen, as seen in his correspondence with other al Qaeda franchises such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Reports of his death in Mukalla are somewhat odd, given that the United States has had the city under close surveillance since al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula assumed control there. The United States has conducted several UAV strikes in the city, one of which killed the group's spiritual leader, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, on April 12. It would be unusual for a high-profile, highly sought-after jihadist figure such as al-Wahayshi to enter such a dangerous area rather than stay in the hideouts that have protected him from U.S. intelligence thus far.

Al-Wahayshi has been pursued for many years now. His group was one of the few al Qaeda franchise groups to attempt to attack the United States — leading it to be considered the most dangerous of al Qaeda's franchise groups. The group attacked the U.S. mainland in the form of a December 2009 attempt to bring down a Delta airliner over Detroit, a November 2010 effort to destroy a cargo aircraft with explosive devices hidden in computer printers, and the 2012 second underwear plot.

The group was also responsible for the publishing of Inspire magazine, which was meant to radicalize and equip English-speaking jihadists to conduct attacks in the West. Inspire magazine and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were found to be connected to a number of attacks and thwarted plots inside the United States, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has since faced heavy pressure. It has lost a number of influential members, including jihadist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, Inspire magazine creator Samir Khan, al-Rubaish and ideologue Harith al-Nadhari.

Rumors are circulating that al-Wahayshi has been replaced by Qasim al-Raymi, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's military chief. Al-Raymi was one of the 23 jihadists who escaped from prison with al-Wahayshi and has been involved in planning the group's military operations. Al-Raymi is described as aggressive, ruthless and a fierce fighter (some have labeled him the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of Yemen). Al-Raymi has himself been targeted by U.S. airstrikes and was falsely reported to have been killed by one in January 2010.

Al-Wahayshi was a charismatic, larger-than-life leader. However, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still has a core of seasoned militants who can be counted on to support al-Raymi, if he is indeed the group's new head.

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