Today is a good day for America.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the group’s most capable outfit and the one that most threatens the West — has lost one of its top leaders, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. In a video statement released today, AQAP announced that al-Wuhayshi had been killed. According to Yemeni officials who spoke to CNN, he was eliminated by a U.S. drone strike last Friday.
As I say, this is good news for America. In terms of both operation and symbolic significance, al-Wuhayshi was profoundly important to al-Qaeda. While there is some disagreement as to whether he was the terror group’s global general manager — responsible for planning and effecting worldwide attacks — or its recognized No. 2 leader (the belief of the British Government), there is no question of al-Wuhayshi’s importance. Certainly this is al-Qaeda’s most significant leadership loss since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There are a number of reasons why al-Wuhayshi was so important to the group responsible for 9/11.
First off, he had repeatedly proven himself an adept strategist. Long evading U.S. intelligence, he was responsible for a number of significant attacks. AQAP’s résumé includes suicide bombers using internal-body explosives and a number of major plots against Western aviation.
Al-Wuyashi filled a crucial PR role for the terror group in attracting sympathizers around the world.
Second, as I outlined last year, al-Wuhayshi was the brand leader for al-Qaeda. Effectively portraying himself as a proud, courageous, and pure servant of God in Arabia, he filled a crucial PR role for the terror group in attracting sympathizers around the world. In an era where many al-Qaeda leaders (including its No. 1, Ayman al-Zawahiri) have retreated into restricted communications for their own security, al-Wuhayshi gave the group a sense of activity and life.
Third, al-Wuhayshi had proved himself a capable military leader. As attested by AQAP’s continuing offensives, the group is carving out vast areas of territory and control across Yemen. Recognizing the importance with which AQAP values its territory, it’s important to note that al-Wuhayshi’s replacement appears to be the group’s military leader, Qasim al-Raymi.
Two key problems arise from his death. First, it risks the Islamic State using this moment of opportunity to push even harder against al-Qaeda in its efforts to displace the group as the leader of global Salafist jihadism. Second, as I predicted back in January and as the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov seemed to prove last week, AQAP may soon find itself benefiting from renewed Saudi patronage. With Riyadh now fixated on Iran, now is as good a time as any for one to be reminded that in the Middle East, the politics of terrorism are always complicated.