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 administration’s boast that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have “decimated” what’s 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 Egypt’s Sinai. The branches that operate in those regions aren’t affiliates, the experts say, they’re 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 it’s no longer accurate to talk about a core al-Qaida that’s 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 might’ve been true five years ago, but it’s 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 Washington’s 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, it’s 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.
“There’s 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 aren’t. They’ve 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 Laden’s, 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.
Wuhayshi and his comrades were able to resuscitate Yemen’s 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 AQAP’s 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 wasn’t 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 Laden’s warning against attempting to seize land in Yemen. As the central government’s control over much of the country unraveled in a 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, militants under Wuhayshi’s leadership carved out “Islamic emirates” in parts of Yemen’s restive south.
That move defied bin Laden’s 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 Zawahiri’s 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-Qaida’s growing pains.
“If you’re 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