The head of al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which U.S. officials say poses the greatest terrorist threat to America, has been killed in a U.S. drone strike, according to Yemeni media reports and statements from the terrorist organization’s members.
If Nasir al-Wuhayshi was killed—a claim that U.S. officials are so far not disputing—his death would be a significant blow to the already-fragile al Qaeda terrorist organization. And it would be the second major hit in a matter of days on a key al Qaeda leader, following a series of U.S. airstrikes over the weekend in Libya that killed another notorious jihadi, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Wuhayshi is arguably the bigger prize, having been promoted two years ago to run all of al Qaeda’s global terror attacks. U.S. intelligence officials have said that his division, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has been perfecting methods for sneaking explosives onto airplanes, hidden inside devices that don’t alert security screening systems.
In other words, as far as the U.S. intelligence community is concerned, Wuhayshi is al Qaeda’s No. 1 threat. If he is gone, it would be seen as a major win for American counterterror operations.
Reports emerged Monday on Twitter from purported AQAP members mourning Wuhayshi’s death and praising his already named successor, Qassem al Rimi. The rapid appointment of a new leader speaks to how critical Wuhayshi’s position was within the organization. But it also suggests that the group’s overall structure remains strong because he was so quickly replaced.
“Decapitation strikes have yet to defeat an [al Qaeda] franchise. It won’t defeat AQAP,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and al Qaeda expert now at the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Beast. “But it’s a welcome development if true.”
American intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that the U.S. is trying to determine whether the terrorist chief was indeed killed. That effort will have been slowed by the lack of a reliable American partner in Yemen that can gather intelligence on strikes and confirm whether they were effective. The U.S. has no forces or diplomatic personnel on the ground in the war-torn country, having pulled out after the fall of the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi earlier this year.
Two Defense Department officials told The Daily Beast that the U.S. military had not conducted operations inside Yemen recently, which suggested that any American strike was carried out by the CIA.
The Yemeni-born jihadist, who once served as Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary, was purportedly on the short list to be a successor to current al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Many have described Wuhayshi as a charismatic, natural leader who is so well versed in the Quran that he could find a source within the book for any situation.
Wuhayshi has led AQAP since 2008, approximately. When bin Laden died in 2011, Wuhayshi was reportedly among the first al Qaeda members to endorse al Zawahiri as his successor. Then, in 2013, Wuhayshi also became al Qeada’s general manager, giving him enough power to authorize operations around the world.
But as early as 2010, when the U.S. State Department named AQAP a terrorist organization, officials described Wuhayshi as “responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”
AQAP has repeatedly called for attacks inside the United States, including against famous landmarks, stadiums, shopping malls, and major cities. Some of those exhortations have been conveyed in al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire, which has spelled out how to create bombs and avoid security detection.
In a 2014 video titled “The First of the Heavy Rain,” Wuhayshi addressed a large gathering of supporters, calling on them to “overthrow” al Qaeda’s “Crusader” enemies.
“We have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America,” Wuhayshi said, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence.
In the months leading up to the January attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Wuhayshi called for the death of its editor in chief, Stephane Charbonnier, who was killed by the attackers. A week after the attack, Wuhayshi appeared in a video claiming responsibility.
The U.S. government issued a $10 million bounty for the capture of Wuhayshi, who was sometimes known as Abu Bashir.
Wuhayshi’s death would show that U.S. counterterrorism efforts continue in Yemen despite the pullout of all special operations forces after Hadi’s government fell, under pressure from the Iranian-backed Houthi militants. The U.S. lost a key intelligence partner, raising fears that drone strikes on AQAP members would be less frequent. The U.S. and Hadi government shared intelligence on the terrorist group, and Hadi allowed U.S. drone strikes within his country, despite how unpopular they are throughout the region.
Wuhayshi has been a top target for the U.S. for more than two years, ever since he was promoted to the general manager position. He was close with bin Laden, working with him since the 1990s. In a 2010 memoir, Guarding bin Laden: My Life in al Qaeda, former bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri wrote that Wuhayshi would often stay with the terrorist icon in the mornings in his Tarnak Farms office in Afghanistan in the months prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Wuhayshi led a jailbreak in Yemen in 2006, which led to the formation of AQAP. According to Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen’s 2012 book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Wuhayshi became a spiritual leader while imprisoned. He and others dug a tunnel to a nearby mosque, disguising the sounds of their digging by loudly reciting passages from the Quran. The nearly two dozen prisoners who escaped with Wuhayshi formed the core of AQAP.