The Death of AQAP Leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi

On June 12, 2015, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader and al Qaeda Core (AQC) deputy director Nasir al-Wuhayshi was killed in a CIA drone strike in southeastern Yemen in the coastal city of al Mukalla. On Tuesday morning, AQAP’s al Malahem media outlet released a recorded video statement confirming his death; the video appears to have been made on June 15, 2015. Confirmation of this strike comes only a day after an allegedly successful strike in Libya that is thought to have killed long-sought Algerian jihadist and al Qaeda (AQ) loyalist Mokhtar Belmohktar. These strikes against high-value al Qaeda members come at a time when the larger organization is facing competition for global influence and notoriety from ISIS, whose operations have demonstrated far greater capability and impact than anything carried out by the al Qaeda network since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Q1: What was Wuhayshi’s significance to al Qaeda?

A1: Since its formation in 2009, Wuhayshi has led AQAP, the most active and lethal branch of the wider al Qaeda network. Wuhayshi also served as the overall deputy to AQ leader Aymen al-Zawahiri and conducted much of the inter-network communication across the terrorist organization. As a senior AQ leader who continued to defy attempts on his life while leading the most expeditionary, U.S-focused AQ affiliate, Wuhayshi’s ongoing role spoke to the persistence and durability of AQAP.

Q2: How significant is AQAP?

A2: AQAP is notorious for its attacks inside Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and for its attempted strikes against the United States. Most well known among these latter efforts was the December 25, 2009, “underwear bomb” plot to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit. AQAP also attempted to ship bombs to the United States via international carriers in 2010, a plot uncovered with the assistance of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service. In Yemen, AQAP has frequently attacked Yemeni government forces, the U.S. embassy, South Korean tourists, and has engaged in battle with other elements across the country.
AQAP was also known for its influential American-Yemeni ideologue and propagandist, Anwar al Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike in 2011 along with another American AQAP blogger and propagandist, Samir Khan. Together they were able to recruit many new members into AQAP. Key to AQAP’s recruitment and propaganda efforts is the widely published and read English-language magazine titled Inspire. Also among AQAP’s most notable and lethal members is their bomb maker, Ibrahim al Asiri, believed to still be alive and plotting against the United States.

Yemen is in the midst of a full-blown civil war with several competing elements. The chaos has benefitted AQAP, which has made rapid advances in Hadramawt Governorate since April, capturing the city of al Mukalla. Shiite Houthi rebels and government forces have all engaged AQAP in combat.

Q3: What impact will Wuhayshi’s assassination have on the future of AQAP?

A3: The death of Wuhayshi is important, but the benefits will be short-lived. Leadership decapitation has not proven decisive against many militant groups, though it is a victory for the time being. Previous leaders across the AQ spectrum have always been replaced, with groups continuing to exist and plot attacks. For the near future, AQAP may spend more time and energy on local targets in order to maintain the territorial advances made since April and to defend its strongholds against attacks from the Houthis and Saudi forces.

From the perspective of AQAP’s morale, Wuhayshi’s death is another in a string of recent blows to senior leadership. This latest strike comes just two months after the deaths of senior AQAP ideologue Ibrahim al Rubaish and Nasser bin al Ainsi, a top AQAP official who claimed the Charlie Hebdo attacks. With only one of the original founders of AQAP remaining, the group’s direction and future strategy may be at stake.

Q4: Will the assassination of al-Wuhayshi impact al Qaeda Core (AQC) and the larger AQ global movement?

A4: A truly charismatic, revered leader of any group is hard to replace. Though Wuhayshi did enjoy respect and loyalty, his death will not prove catastrophic for AQAP or for AQC.

Wuhayshi’s death may briefly impact communication between AQC and the AQ network. As AQC senior leadership went further underground, Wuhayshi relayed messages and instructions between affiliates and AQC leadership. But as with all of Wuhayshi’s responsibilities, these roles too will be filled. Undoubtedly, AQAP’s new leader, Qassim al Rimi, will take over from his predecessor, though it remains to be seen if al Rimi has or can attain Wuhayshi’s level of respect across the AQ network.

The United States and its counterterrorism partners will reap some benefits from the death of Wuhayshi and possibly of Belmohktar (if in fact the latter died in the recent airstrike in Libya). As the AQ leaders continue to fall, U.S. adversaries are reminded that enemies are not forgotten—and that despite a reduced U.S. presence in a chaotic country such as Yemen—terrorists are not safe.

Given the competition for leadership of the global jihadi movement between ISIS and AQ, damaging the AQ network can actually strengthen the perception that ISIS is at the vanguard of that movement and remains the only force capable of defending Muslims and attacking “enemy” forces. This is certainly not a reason to hold back on attacking and dismantling the AQ network and killing its leaders, but rather a reminder that even positive developments can at the same time benefit other terrorist groups.

Q5: What does this strike reveal about U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen in the wake of the Houthi rebel takeover of that nation?

A5: Despite initial concerns that the pullout of U.S. Special Operations Forces from Yemen in March would hamper counterterrorism efforts against AQAP, this successful strike illustrates ongoing intelligence and targeting success—a notion reinforced by the strike in Libya against Belmohktar and his associates. It could also be true that more targets would have been hit had those forces remained in Yemen (exceptionally high levels of insecurity prompted their removal). Regardless of the Special Operations pullout from Yemen, CIA drones continue to be based in Djibouti and Saudi Arabia and will be brought to bear against targets in Yemen.

Q6: Should the United States expect to see retaliation for the killing of Wuhayshi?

A6: AQAP is widely considered the most capable al Qaeda affiliate and has demonstrated its ability to insert terrorists and explosives into the United States and Saudi Arabia. This, combined with the greater freedom of movement in a lawless country, suggests that AQAP remains a significant threat to the United States at home and overseas. A CIA drone strike that killed its leader will almost certainly result in some effort by AQAP to retaliate. But it is that same widespread chaos in Yemen that may prove distracting to AQAP in the short term. Ultimately, AQAP will not forget the attack and, when ready and able, will seek revenge.

Wuhayshi’s successor, Qassim al Rimi, has demonstrated an ability to threaten the United States with his role in the 2010 printer cartridge bombing plot, but the new emir may have to prioritize the group’s local operations given ongoing instability in Yemen. The United States has maintained a close watch on AQAP and its proven desire to attack the United States. That attention will only increase given the death of Wuhayshi.

Thomas Sanderson is a senior fellow and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joshua Russakis is a research assistant with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project. Claire McGillem is an intern with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project.

Critical Questions isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Joshua Russakis, Thomas M. Sanderson, and Claire McGillem