CAIRO (AP) — A U.S. airstrike has killed al-Qaida’s second-most-powerful figure, the head of its Yemeni branch, dealing the terror network its biggest blow since the killing of Osama bin Laden at a time when it is vying with the Islamic State group for the mantle of global jihad.
Nasir al-Wahishi was the latest in a series of senior figures from al-Qaida’s powerful Yemeni branch eliminated by U.S. drone attacks over the past five months, including its top ideologue and a senior military commander. The U.S. has intensified its campaign, trying to push back the group as it has captured new territory in Yemen by taking advantage of the southern Arabian nation’s chronic chaos.
In confirming the killing of al-Wahishi in a June 9 drone attack, the White House said Tuesday that his death “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
The U.S. activity against al-Qaida has not been limited to Yemen. Over the weekend, a U.S. airstrike in Libya targeted an al-Qaida-linked militant commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who led a 2013 attack on an Algerian gas complex that killed 35 hostages, including several Americans. U.S. officials are still trying to confirm whether he was killed in the raid.
Al-Wahishi was a former aide to bin Laden who, after the al-Qaida affiliate in Saudi Arabia was crushed in the mid-2000s, rebuilt it in his Yemeni homeland and turned it into the terror network’s most dangerous branch. He also served as deputy to Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded bin Laden in 2011 as the network’s leader. The U.S. had put a bounty of up to $10 million on al-Wahishi.
The Yemeni branch, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, claimed responsibility for January’s attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people. It also attempted several direct attacks on the United States, including a botched 2009 plot to bomb an American passenger jet.
Al-Wahishi’s death is a major loss for al-Qaida as it struggles to compete with the Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway that has seized vast swaths of Syria and Iraq and spawned its own affiliates elsewhere in the region. The Islamic State group has also gained loyalists in Yemen in competition with al-Qaida.
Both groups are dedicated to bringing about Islamic rule by force, but al-Qaida does not recognize the IS group’s self-styled caliphate and maintains the priority should be to wage jihad against America in order to drive it out of the Middle East.
Amid fierce competition with the Islamic State group for recruits and prestige across the Middle East, the successive blows to al-Qaida in Yemen have raised questions of whether they would only serve the Islamic State group as fighters from the al-Qaida affiliate defect and join IS ranks.
However, Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Defense of Democracies think tank and managing editor of the Long War Journal, which chronicles the U.S. war on terror, predicted the impact would be limited to the short-term morale of the group’s fighters and would not hurt its strength and strategy.
“The group will move on,” Roggio said. “If you had a single strike that decapitated senior leaders and chopped off the top leaving it headless, then I would say fighters will look for a more organized group. But this was not the case. They were killed over time.”
A senior operative in Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate eulogized al-Wahishi in a video statement released online Tuesday and said his deputy, Qassim al-Raimi, had been tapped to replace him.
“Our Muslim nation, one of your heroes and masters has departed to God,” Khaled Batarfi said of al-Wahishi’s killing in the southern Yemeni port city of Mukalla, which al-Qaida captured in April. Two other militants also died in the strike, according to Yemeni security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Raimi, the new AQAP leader, is thought to have masterminded a 2010 plot in which bombs concealed in printers were shipped to the U.S. on cargo planes before being detected and defused. He is believed to direct training camps in Yemen’s remote deserts and mountains, where he organizes cells and plans attacks.
Al-Qaida has been able to make major gains in Yemen in recent months as the country is torn by war between Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and their opponents, a mix of local militias, Sunni tribesmen and other backers of the president, Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour, who was driven abroad by the fighting. Al-Qaida’s militants have allied with some of the anti-Houthi forces in fighting the rebels. Batarfi said his group is fighting rebels and allied forces on 11 fronts.
The capture of Mukalla was the al-Qaida affiliate’s biggest victory. It freed a number of prisoners, including Batarfi, before striking a power-sharing deal with local tribesmen.
But the victory in Mukalla has proved something of a death trap. Besides al-Wahishi, U.S. drone strikes in and around the city have killed the group’s top military commander, Nasr al-Ansi, its most senior religious ideologue, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, and key operatives Mamoun Hatem and Khawlan al-Sanaani.
In recent years, U.S. strikes have also killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni militant preacher who was a major recruiter for the group, and Saeed al-Shihri, an ex-Guantanamo detainee from Saudi Arabia who was al-Wahishi’s deputy at the time.
The intensity of U.S. drone strikes comes despite the withdrawal earlier this year of U.S. counterterrorism personnel from the al-Annad air base in southern Yemen and the closure of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Sanaa, because of the fighting. The Special Forces commandos at the base had played a key role in drone strikes and there had been major concerns that the withdrawal would undermine the fight against al-Qaida.
Al-Wahishi was known as bin Laden’s “black box,” keeping the al-Qaida leader’s secrets. During the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he fought alongside bin Laden at Tora Bora before the al-Qaida leader slipped across the border into Pakistan. Al-Wahishi fled to Iran, where he was detained and deported to Yemen in 2003.
He was among 23 al-Qaida militants who broke out of a detention facility in the Yemeni capital in February 2006. Three years later, al-Wahishi announced the creation of AQAP, which gathered together Yemeni and Saudi militants following a sweeping crackdown on the extremist group by Riyadh.
According to the U.S. government’s “Wanted to Justice” program, al-Wahishi, was “responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”