While President Obama has overseen a largely secret war that has killed dozens of top al Qaeda commanders since 2009, one master terrorist has managed to elude U.S. forces: Nasser al-Wuhayshi.
Today, Wuhayshi is a top target for the United States, after intelligence agencies monitored a conference call last week that served as a virtual board meeting for al Qaeda’s central leadership and the group's global affiliates—and in which the Yemeni-born jihadist was promoted to the position of general manager for al Qaeda operations. At the request of its sources, The Daily Beast is withholding details about the technology al Qaeda used to conduct the conference call. U.S. intelligence officers say Wuhayshi is leading an attack plan that could call on resources from al Qaeda’s franchises across North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.
Known at times as Abu-Bashir, Wuhayshi was one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates, a top lieutenant who worked with the terror ringleader in the 1990s. When al Qaeda took up residence in Afghanistan, Wuhayshi was picked to lead of one of the group’s four training camps in Tarnak Farms, where bin Laden himself often stayed. In his 2010 memoir, Guarding bin Laden: My Life in al Qaeda, former bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri wrote that Wuhayshi would often stay with bin Laden in the mornings as he worked in his Tarnak Farms office in the months and years before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.
Wuhayshi, who had studied Islam in Yemen, was sometimes referred to as bin Laden’s personal secretary during that period. When U.S.-led forces struck Afghanistan, al-Bahri said Wuhayshi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy at the time and now the leader of al Qaeda, stuck with bin Laden when he was on the run. “During his flight to the caves in Tora Bora, where he would face 12 days of bombardment from the Americans, bin Laden only wanted a tiny number of his most faithful followers with him, to minimize the risk of being spotted,” al-Bahri wrote. “Ayman al-Zawahiri, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and Hamza al-Ghamdi stayed with him, along with a handful of Saudi guards.”
When al Qaeda’s senior leadership fled the country, Zawahiri and bin Laden holed up in Pakistan. But al-Wuhayshi and others traveled to Iran, according to al-Bahri. While in Iran, al-Bahri wrote that the al Qaeda leaders initially received assistance from Sunni Muslims in the province of Baluchistan, who helped them escape to countries around the gulf region. However, Iranian authorities kept al Qaeda officials in “assigned residences in an area that was under surveillance.” While another al Qaeda leader in Iran, Saif al-Adel, was free to marry an Iranian woman and even publish pieces online, Wuhayshi was not so lucky. The Iranians extradited Wuhayshi to Yemen, where he was arrested and sent to prison.
According to Gregory Johnsen’s 2012 book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Wuhayshi emerged as something of a spiritual leader to al Qaeda militants in the prison. By 2006, the cell had a plan. Wuhayshi and others began to dig a tunnel out of the prison—to a nearby mosque. Johnsen writes that Wuhayshi and al Qaeda operatives would often loudly recite passages from the Quran to disguise the sound of their makeshift shovels and picks. On February 3, 2006, Wuhayshi and 22 other prisoners emerged from the tunnel and into the neighboring mosque, according to Johnsen, and then filed out into the street in twos and threes.
The jailbreak proved to be the genesis of al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, now known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2007, Wuhayshi was elected as the group’s leader, but he was ready to move on. According to an August 2010 letter found during the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s headquarters in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden politely rejected Wuhayshi’s request for Anwar al-Awlaki, who became the first American-born member of al Qaeda to be targeted in a drone strike, to be promoted to be the leader of the Yemen affiliate.
“How excellent would it be if you ask brother Basir [Wuhayshi] to send us the résumé, in detail and lengthy, of brother Anwar al-‘Awlaqi, as well as the facts he relied on when recommending him, while informing him that his recommendation is considered,” bin Laden wrote, in the letter to Attiya Abdul Rahman, an al Qaeda leader who was killed in an August 2011 drone strike. “However, we would like to be reassured more. For example, we here become reassured of the people when they go to the line and get examined there.”
One U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that Wuhayshi had designs on a more senior role in al Qaeda. The letter that prompted bin Laden’s response has not been declassified.
After bin Laden’s death in 2011, Wuhayshi and his affiliate became one of the first groups within al Qaeda to endorse Zawahiri for the top position. Bruce Riedel, an expert on al Qaeda at the Brookings Institution and a former senior CIA analyst, said Wuhayshi had a connection with the Egyptian-born commander. “He has been loyal to Zawahiri,” Riedel said. “They were quick to endorse him in 2011. I don’t know the grounds for it, those incidents back in Afghanistan before 9/11, but there was a bond between the two of them,” he said.
That bond appears to have paid off. In the virtual meeting the U.S. monitored last week among al Qaeda leaders, Zawahiri promoted Wuhayshi to the post of “Ma’sul al-Amm,” an Arabic phrase that translates to “general manager.” It means Wuhayshi now will be able to call on the resources of al Qaeda’s affiliates throughout the Muslim world, according to one U.S. intelligence official. It also means the U.S. military and the CIA will be redoubling their efforts to find him.