Al Qaida’s branch in war-torn Yemen confirmed Tuesday that its leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
In a video statement, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninusla announced that Nasir al Wuhayshi, who carried a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head and once served as Osama bin Laden’s secretary, had been replaced by Qasm al Rimi, also known by his nom de guerre of Abu Hureira al Sanaani.
Wuhayshi’s death represents a setback to al Qaida, but one from which it would likely recover.
“He was very significant, but you don’t defeat an organization like this by killing its leader,” said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with the RAND Corp., a policy institute. “It’s a blow, but not an irrecoverable blow.”
Wuhayshi’s death Friday was the second major counter-terrorism success for the United States over a three-day period.
U.S. jetfighters on Sunday dropped multiple 500-pound bombs on a compound near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian extremist linked to al Qaida, U.S. officials said. He was wanted for the 2013 seizure of a natural gas plant in Algeria in which 38 foreigners died, including three Americans.
According local news reports in Yemen and social media posts, Wuhayshi was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday in the southern port city of al Mukallah.
Wuhayshi, 38, worked for bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was arrested by Iranian authorities after he fled the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and crossed into Iran. Iran handed him over to Yemen, but he escaped from a high-security prison in 2006.
He was the founder of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaida affiliate formed in 2010 with the merger of the al Qaida branches in Yemen and neighboring Saudi Arabia. In 2013, he was appointed as the “general manager” of al Qaida’s global operations by bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
It was an intercepted communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi in 2013 that led to the temporary closing of U.S. embassies in 21 countries.
AQAP is regarded by U.S. officials as posing the most significant terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland and American interests overseas because of its attempts to plant bombs aboard U.S.-bound aircraft and its experimentation with non-metallic bombs.
In perhaps the most notorious AQAP plot, the son of a Nigerian diplomat failed to set off explosives hidden in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009 as he flew aboard a commercial jet flying over Detroit.
AQAP also oversaw online efforts to radicalize Muslims in the United States and Europe. It claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7 attack in Paris on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, by two brothers and a third man that left 12 people dead and 11 others injured.
Many experts regarded Wuhayshi as Zawahiri’s designated successor, although final approval would have rested with al Qaida’s main leadership council.
“Wuhayshi was a very significant al Qaida leader,” said Jones. “He was very close to Ayman al Zawahiri and the senior leadership and would almost certainly have been a candidate to lead the organization if Zawahiri had been killed.”
“Secondly, his organization has been generally assessed to be the most dangerous to the U.S. homeland. It continues to be involved in plotting attacks,” he continued.
But Wuhayshi’s death isn’t likely to significantly hobble AQAP or the terror network’s global leadership because individual leaders who are killed are quickly replaced, as Tuesday’s announcement made clear.
“It is very, very difficult to defeat an organization through an attrition strategy,” said Jones.
The CIA and U.S. Joint Special Forces Command have been launching drone attacks against AQAP in recent years, but some have killed civilians, fueling support for AQAP.
AQAP is confronting bigger problems brought on by the civil war convulsing Yemen that has left the country of 22 million people at the strategic southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in bloody chaos.
A Shiite Muslim movement known as the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh have overrun large swaths of the country, forcing the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis and Saleh’s loyalists, who are backed by Shiite-dominated Iran, also are fighting AQAP.
A Saudi-led air campaign that includes other Sunni Arab powers and is supported by the United States has been launching airstrikes against the Houthis and Saleh’s forces with the aim of forcing a settlement that returns Hadi to power. Ironically, the strikes effectively have put AQAP and the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition on the same side.