Wuhayshi and his comrades were able to resuscitate Yemens al-Qaida franchise rapidly after a series of attacks on its senior leadership had weakened it severely. Along with his deputy, former Guantánamo detainee Saeed al Shihri, a Saudi who died early this year after an American drone strike, Wuhayshi built the Arabian branch into a determined, adaptable fighting force. Former CIA director David Petraeus once dubbed it the most dangerous node in the global jihad.
Wuhayshi has provided significant support for AQAP terrorist operations and has worked with AQAP operatives to facilitate attacks. As AQAPs leader, Wuhayshi is responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks, the State Department said in an assessment of Wuhayshi when it designated him a global terrorist.
Wuhayshi is said to enjoy the deep respect of his foot soldiers, drawing legitimacy from his many narrow escapes from U.S. drone strikes and his status as a bin Laden protege.
In many ways, he is similar to bin Laden: soft-spoken, allows others to speak and share opinions, yet everyone listens to him and respects his decision-making, said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite their close relationship, Wuhayshi wasnt afraid to steer an independent course from his mentor, according to declassified documents that were recovered during the raid that killed bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan.
Most notably, Wuhayshi appears to have disregarded bin Ladens warning against attempting to seize land in Yemen. As the central governments control over much of the country unraveled in a 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, militants under Wuhayshis leadership carved out Islamic emirates in parts of Yemens restive south.
That move defied bin Ladens advice to refocus his efforts on attacking the United States, according to the recovered documents.
Such a push for autonomy is a hallmark of the new generation, which came of age fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The issue was highlighted recently when the Syrian and Iraqi branches of al-Qaida the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq, respectively wrestled for control over the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad in an unusually public rift. They reached a deal after Zawahiris intervention that was designed to keep the groups on their respective sides of the border.
Similar internecine struggles have erupted in African and Central Asian branches, highlighting al-Qaidas growing pains.
If youre talking about capability, about sustainability and the ability to take the al-Qaida movement into a new phase, then, yes, Wuhayshi would be the heir apparent, said Swift, the Georgetown professor. But the things that make him effective are his rejection of the old al-Qaida model.
Baron, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Twitter: @hannahallam, @adammbaron