June 16, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Killing Al-Qaeda’s Number Two

• Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has confirmed the death of its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi

• Wuhayshi’s death will have significant repercussions for al-Qaeda well beyond AQAP’s strongholds in Yemen

• The transition of ‘Bin Ladinism’ from an underground terrorist movement to a collection of competing organizations with overt physical presence will continue to invite challenges to terrorist groups and present opportunities for their opponents.


The death of the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al-Wuhayshi, on Friday, June 12 as the result of a CIA drone strike three days earlier in the al-Qaeda-held city of al-Mukalla in southeast Yemen, is a significant blow to both the group as well as to the broader movement.

Wuhayshi was not only one of the four founding members of AQAP in 2009 but also the ‘general manager’ of al-Qaeda globally and the main conduit through which the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, received messages from his affiliates elsewhere and sent them his directives. Although not formally designated as second-in-command, Wuhayshi’s position made him the favorite to take over al-Qaeda’s reins in the event of Zawahiri’s death or capture. His removal will further exacerbate the command-and-control problems of the movement, which have become increasingly evident as the so-called Islamic State has come to dominate both the battlefield and the media.

Without Wuhayshi, Zawahiri’s ability to project his leadership is in even greater crisis. The loss of his most active and dependable lieutenant in the Middle East at almost exactly the same time as the apparent loss of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was at least loyal and active in north and west Africa, even if less dependable, and not so long after the death of Mukhtar Abu Zubair, the leader of al-Shabaab, are blows from which al-Qaeda the organization may struggle to recover.

Al-Qaeda is in danger of becoming a loose affiliation of local groups that only share an increasingly irrelevant name. As a global terrorist movement directed primarily against the United States, it appears a shadow of its former self. Even Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is likely to find itself increasingly trapped in a nationalist agenda as the alliance of Syrian rebel groups that it leads, Jaish al-Fateh, takes over more territory, and as it tries to distinguish itself from the Islamic State as an exponent of a more thoughtful and ‘moderate’ terrorism. The hardcore al-Qaeda veterans within Jabhat al-Nusra, referred to as the Khorasan group, will begin to feel that they are the last of the old guard rather than the leaders of the future.

AQAP is also likely to become more local in its outlook as it continues to navigate the complexities of Yemen’s tribal makeup, facing attacks from both Houthi rebels and—no doubt eventually—their Saudi Arabian-backed opponents. Wuhayshi was good at that, and had great credibility and authority as the ex-secretary of Usama bin Ladin. The reputation of AQAP’s new leader, Qassim al-Rimi, lies more in the operational than political sphere, and he has few top advisors to help him project his leadership more broadly. Apart from Wuhayshi, drones have taken out several other senior AQAP figures this year, in particular those most able to provide an ideological underpinning to the movement, which is essential as it competes for influence and support with other groups, especially the Islamic State. In April alone, the group lost its main ideologue, Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish—one of its few senior members with experience operating overseas—as well as Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, the man who claimed the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January on behalf of AQAP.

The loss of senior leaders at a time of great change and challenge in the world of ‘bin-Ladinism’ is bad enough for al-Qaeda, but all groups, not just al-Qaeda, will be wondering what lies behind this string of U.S. counterterrorism successes. AQAP has been relatively sophisticated and careful in its use of communications and in vetting its members, and the group has an active counter-intelligence arm. Yet the pinpoint accuracy of recent drone strikes is not the result of chance sightings or luck, and the strikes carry on despite the decline of the Yemeni security agencies. It is likely that AQAP, like other groups that have taken advantage of the collapse of government structures to seize territory, will ask itself once again how to maintain security while transitioning from being a clandestine organization that only strikes when it is ready, to being a quasi-governing body with an overt presence and daily obligations.


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