A US airstrike has killed the leader of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, the organization’s most powerful branch, in the latest setback to the global terror network spawned by Osama bin Laden.
The group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), announced the death of Nasser al-Wuhayshi along with two other operatives in a video statement released Tuesday. The group said that its military commander, Qassim al-Raimi, had been chosen to replace Wuhayshi.
As the head of operations in Yemen since 2002, Wuhayshi was Al Qaeda's second-ranking leader, making his death the biggest blow to Al Qaeda since the killing of bin Laden in 2011.
"Our Muslim nation, a hero of your heroes and a master of your masters left to God, steadfast," Khaled Batrafi, a senior Al Qaeda operative, said in the video, vowing that the group's war against America would continue.
"In the name of God, the blood of these pioneers makes us more determined to sacrifice," he said. "Let the enemies know that the battle is not with an individual ... the battle led by crusaders and their agents is colliding with a billion-member nation."
The death of Wuhayshi comes at a crucial time for Al Qaeda as it contends with the self-described Islamic State for the leadership of global jihad, The Associated Press reports:
Both groups are dedicated to bringing about Islamic rule by force, but al-Qaida does not recognize the IS group's self-styled caliphate and has maintained that the priority should be to wage jihad against America in order to drive it out of the Middle East.
A veteran jihadi who once worked closely with bin Laden, Wuhayshi was a charismatic leader who helped plan several near-miss terror plots in the United States. They included an attempt to bring down an airliner with a bomb hidden in an operative’s underwear in 2009 and a plot to sneak bombs onto a cargo plane in 2010.
American counterterrorism officials are certain to view the killing of Wuhayshi – which occurred in the southern Yemeni port of Mukalla last week – as a major victory, The New York Times reports.
He built the affiliate … into what was seen as the global organization’s most active branch and the most dangerous threat against the United States, even though its attempts to blow up airliners over American soil have failed.
But his death also comes as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown more powerful in Yemen, capitalizing on civil war to capture territory and forge new alliances with Sunni tribes to fight the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group that controls large parts of the country.
Analysts told The Washington Post that the newly acquired territory in war-torn Yemen could eventually be used by AQAP to stage attacks against the US and Europe. Even without Wuhayshi, the group is likely to remain a potent terrorist threat, according to US officials and counterterrorism experts.
The same can be said about the Al Qaeda branch in North Africa, who reportedly lost its leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, in a US airstrike over the weekend.
“The ideology, the message, and the mythology they created now outlives them, and I don’t think their passage is really going to be the end of this problem,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who is a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, told The Post.