WASHINGTON -- The rise in prominence of Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni head of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, underscores the transformation of al-Qaida from a relatively small group led by one charismatic man into a diffuse global organization with many branches that pursue local objectives but follow a single ideology, according to counterterrorism analysts and officials.
The change has undermined the Obama administrations boast that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have decimated whats been called core al-Qaida, according to veteran al-Qaida watchers. Instead, the organization, no longer dependent on the leadership of a single personality, is growing, with authority now spread among leaders not just in Yemen but also in Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Egypts Sinai. The branches that operate in those regions arent affiliates, the experts say, theyre al-Qaida.
The experts are still uncertain how the various leaders of al-Qaida interact with one another, and there are signs that Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who was named to lead al-Qaida after U.S. special forces shot and killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, still holds special influence.
But experts say its no longer accurate to talk about a core al-Qaida thats in charge of groups operating in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Iraq and Syria.
The great fiction al-Qaida perpetrated on the West is that a centralized, hierarchical group controlled things from a cave in Afghanistan. That mightve been true five years ago, but its certainly not true now, said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University who advises U.S. officials on counterterrorism strategy.
A blog post by the Long War Journal, a publication associated with Washingtons Foundation for Defense of Democracies, declared this week that it is quite obvious that the very narrow definition used by so many is flat wrong.
The role of Zawahiri is still in question; an intercepted directive from Zawahiri to Wuhayshi to launch an attack is thought to have been the trigger for the U.S. decision to close diplomatic posts in 16 countries this week. But whatever his role, analysts say, its important for U.S. officials to grasp that the core is no longer essential for the survival of al-Qaida by now more a movement than a group.
Theres all this pontification about whether al-Qaida core is trying to get back to what they were, said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was on the team that hunted bin Laden for years. Of course they arent. Theyve evolved.
The closing of so many U.S. diplomatic facilities, including some in countries that have no history of Islamist agitation, is evidence of how the reach of al-Qaida has changed.
The face of that evolution is Wuhayshi. Born in southern Yemen in the late 1970s, he was barely out of his teens when he traveled to Afghanistan, training in al-Qaida-run militant camps and earning a spot as a close aide and confidant of bin Ladens, according to biographical details in government and news reports.
Iranian authorities arrested Wuhayshi after he fled Afghanistan in 2001 and handed him over to Yemeni authorities, who kept him in a maximum-security prison in the capital, Sanaa.
In 2006, he and 22 other prisoners tunneled to freedom in a headline-grabbing jailbreak. Three years later, he reappeared as the head of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the result of a merger between jihadists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.