Wuhayshi’s death strikes blow to AQAP, benefits ISIS
London - The death of al-Qaeda second-in-command Nasir al- Wuhayshi dealt a blow to the international terrorist network, which is already finding its grip on global jihadism challenged by the Islamic State (ISIS), experts said.
Wuhayshi, who was head of al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was killed on June 12th during a US drone strike in south-east Yemen. His death was confirmed in an online video by AQAP three days later. Qasim al-Raymi was named his successor as military chief.
The White House hailed Wuhayshi’s death as a “major blow” to AQAP, al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, and to al-Qaeda more broadly, despite the fact that the CIA did not know in advance that al-Qaeda’s leader was among suspected militants targeted in the drone attack.
Wuhayshi was wanted by the United States for “approving targets, recruiting new [al-Qaeda] members, allocating resources to training and attack planning and tasking others to carry out attacks”, according to the US State Department. Washington had offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Wuhayshi’s role within al-Qaeda extended far beyond Yemen, and he was viewed by many experts as being al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s right-hand man. Wuhayshi, a former aide of Osama bin Laden, had been al-Qaeda’s de facto operations manager since 2013, serving as a vital messenger between the terrorist group’s various branches.
Al-Qaeda could face increasing “command-and-control problems” following Wuhayshi’s death, said the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy, particularly with the advance of ISIS, which has come to “dominate both the battlefield and the media”.
“Al-Qaeda is in danger of becoming a loose affiliation of local groups” that could transform from “an underground terrorist movement to a collection of competing organisations”, Soufan, a US-based think-tank, said in an online posting.
US National Security Council spokesman Ned Prince said, “Wuhayshi’s death removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
However, experts said that while Wuhayshi’s death represents a setback for al-Qaeda, this does not necessarily translate to a blow against global jihadism, with ISIS set to benefit from any weakening in al- Qaeda’s position.
Mathieu Guidere, an expert on Islamic groups at France’s University of Toulouse, told Agence France- Presse (AFP): “The more al-Qaeda is weakened, the more jihadist fighters join ISIS. On the other hand, the more ISIS is attacked, the more there will be a return of fighters to al-Qaeda.”
As for al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen, it has already named a new leader and could bounce back quickly.
“His [Wuhayshi’s] death is no doubt a big blow for AQAP, but it seems to have been prepared for this moment, swiftly naming another highly influential figure, Qasim al-Raymi, to succeed him,” Islamic group and terrorism analyst Murad Batal al-Shishani told BBC Arabic.
“Compared to other al-Qaeda franchises, AQAP is the one with the deepest bench,” said Olivier Guitta, managing director of security and risk consultancy GlobalStrat.
Although Wuhayshi “is a loss” for the branch, “it can rebound quickly”, he said.
AQAP has seen a resurgence following the conflict in Yemen, benefiting from escalating sectarian tensions in the southern Arabian peninsula state after months of fighting between loyalists of the country’s government-in-exile and Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
AQAP has used the conflict to consolidate its presence on the central Hadramawt governorate, including seizing the provincial capital, Mukalla. The group appears well organised and has been able to overcome the deaths of other senior leaders in recent months, including religious official Harith al-Nadhari, spokesman Ibrahim al-Rubaish and military officer Nasser al-Ansi.
Despite this, ISIS is seeking to challenge al-Qaeda’s presence in the southern Arabian state, carrying out attacks on Shia mosques in Sana’a. At least 31 people were killed on June 17th and dozens wounded in five simultaneous bombings targeting mosques in the Yemeni capital. The attacks came three months after 142 people were killed in similar attacks in Sana’a.
ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks.
ISIS’s entry into the conflict in Yemen could allow AQAP to present itself as the more moderate jihadist option in the conflict-riven state. Some parties are viewing AQAP as “moderate and can be dealt with compared with the barbarism of ISIS”, said Guidere.
The al-Qaeda organisation in Yemen condemned the ISIS attack on Shia mosques in Sana’a, issuing a statement insisting, “We abide by the instructions of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting mosques and markets … to protect the lives of innocent Muslims.”