The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wahishi, is dead following reports of a U.S. drone strike that targeted him.
Al-Wahishi’s death “strikes a major blow to AQAP, al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, and to al-Qaeda more broadly,” according to a statement from National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.
Without confirming that al-Wahishi was killed by a U.S. drone strike, Price said the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that he was killed in Yemen.
Two other militants were killed with Al-Wahishi, according to the militant group blamed for the Charlie Hebdo magazine massacre and other high-profile attacks. The extremist leader was the subject of a $5 million U.S. reward,
The group’s new leader is Qasim al-Rimi, whom the U.S. identifies as AQAP’s military commander, a man identified as Khaled Batarfi said in a video released online. Al-Rimi, also with a $5 million U.S. price on his head, has played a key role in recruiting the current generation of AQAP militants, according to the U.S. State Department.
U.S. intelligence officials are habitually cautious about declaring terrorist leaders dead, in part because a number of them have been written off multiple times, only to reemerge, and in part because groups sometimes issue statements to throw enemies off their leaders’ trails.
“While AQAP, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates will remain persistent in their efforts to threaten the United States, our partners, and our interests, Wahishi’s death removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups,” according to Price’s statement.
Al-Wahishi was “not only one of the four founding members of AQAP in 2009 but also the ‘general manager’ of al-Qaeda globally and the main conduit” of communications to and from core al-Qaeda group’s top leader, 63-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to the Soufan Group, a security firm based in New York that’s staffed with former U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.
Al-Wahishi’s position “made him the favorite to take over al-Qaeda’s reins in the event of Zawahiri’s death or capture,” the security firm said in an e-mail. “His removal will further exacerbate the command-and-control problems of the movement, which have become increasingly evident as the so-called Islamic State has come to dominate both the battlefield and the media.”
Despite the quick succession announcement, al-Rimi lacks al-Wahishi’s political experience and connections, according to the Soufan Group. Al-Wahishi was killed in a strike last week in the southeast province of Hadramaut, according to Yemen’s al-Masdar news website.
In the past year, U.S. airstrikes have have killed other key AQAP figures, “in particular those most able to provide an ideological underpinning to the movement which is essential as it competes for influence and support with other groups, especially the Islamic State,” according to the security firm.
The U.S. doesn’t comment on drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP, the al-Qaeda affiliate that has orchestrated numerous high-profile terror attacks, including the failed “underwear bomber” attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009. The group claimed responsibility for the January attack on the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which gunmen killed 12 people.
Al-Qaeda Number Two
Al-Wahishi had been leader of the group since January 2009, and in 2013 was designated deputy to Zawahiri, who’s thought to be based in Pakistan, according to the U.S. State Department.
This is the latest blow to al-Qaeda’s global organization, following the airstrike days ago in Libya that targeted Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a Zawahiri loyalist who had organized al-Qaeda’s North African arm. A Libyan Islamist group on Tuesday denied he was killed in the U.S. airstrike. In September, a U.S. airstrike killed the leader of the radical Islamist al-Shabaab group in Somalia, Ahmed Abdi Godane.
The loss of such leaders “are blows from which al-Qaeda the organization may struggle to recover,” said the Soufan Group.
“As a global terrorist movement directed primarily against the United States, it appears a shadow of its former self,” the firm said.
U.S. military and intelligence officials, however, caution that while al-Qaeda has suffered a series of blows, Islamic State has emerged as an equal or greater threat, in part because of its success recruiting, training and inspiring Islamic extremists in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.