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 terrorist 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 a French satirical magazine that killed 12 people. It also attempted several direct attacks on the United States, including a failed 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.
A senior operative in Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate eulogized al-Wahishi in a video statement released Tuesday and said his deputy, Qassim al-Raimi, had been tapped to replace him.
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 terrorists 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 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.
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 terrorists 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 terrorists following a sweeping crackdown on the extremist group by Riyadh.