(Update: Al-Qaeda confirmed in a video released Tuesday that AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi has been killed in a U.S. drone strike, and that Qasm al-Rimi had been chosen as his “worthy successor.” The video narrator, Khaled Batarfi threatened revenge, saying the group would attack and “destroy” U.S. interests.)
(CNSNews.com) – Unconfirmed reports from Yemen say a U.S. drone strike has killed the head of al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, a development which, if true, could be the Islamist terror network’s most severe blow since the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALS in Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi is said to have been killed Friday in the expansive eastern region of Hadramout, according to Yemen Post, citing a report (in Arabic) on the Yemeni website al-Masdar.
“We obtained reliable information that al-Wuhayshi was targeted by the drone in the city of Mukalla in Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout this past Friday,” it said, adding that AQAP has named a new “emir.”
In 2013, al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi as general manager of al-Qaeda’s global network, effectively making him its number-two leader – roughly the equivalent of Zawahiri while bin Laden was alive.
Wuhayshi (aka Wahishi), a Yemeni national, has been close to the leadership of “core al-Qaeda” for many years, serving for a time as bin Laden’s personal secretary.
After the U.S. killed the top al-Qaeda figure in Yemen, Abu Ali al-Harithi, in a Nov. 2002 drone strike, Wuhayshi emerged as a top figure in the cell that would later be called AQAP.
Wuhayshi was later captured, but escaped from a Yemeni prison in early 2006, along with 22 other militants, including a man sentenced to death for the USS Cole bombing in 2000, an attack that killed 17 sailors.
It was a well-planned and audacious escape, according to Interpol – via a 460 foot-long tunnel “dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside.”
When AQAP’s formal launch was announced in 2009 Wuhayshi was named as its head. The State Department a year later added AQAP to the list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” and designated Wuhayshi under an anti-terrorism executive order.
Last October, the State Department under its Rewards for Justice program announced a $10 million reward for information leading to Wuhayshi’s location.
It described him as being “responsible for approving AQAP targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources, and directing AQAP operatives to conduct attacks. In 2013, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri named him as his deputy.”
U.S. security officials view AQAP as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate. The group tried to bomb a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day 2009, but the would-be bomber, a Nigerian recruit, was restrained after trying detonate explosives hidden in his underwear.
In October 2010 AQAP failed in a bid to ship bombs to the U.S., hidden in packages on commercial cargo planes, and in 2013, the State Department temporarily shuttered more than 20 U.S. embassies, in response to an AQAP-associated threat.
Last summer then-Attorney-General Eric Holder expressed “extreme” concern about a rising terror threat from Yemen, specifically intelligence that AQAP bomb makers were in Syria, joining forces with jihadists there.
“That’s a deadly combination,” Holder said at the time, “where you have people who have the technical knowhow along with the people who have this kind of fervor to give their lives in support of a cause that is directed at the United States and directed at its allies. And it’s something that gives us really extreme, extreme concern.”
The al-Masdar report said following Wuhayshi’s death AQAP fighters pledged allegiance to the group’s military commander, Qasm al-Rimi (aka Abu Huraira).
Rimi is also designated by the U.S. government, which describes him as a “senior military commander” who played a key role in reviving al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen.
“In addition to his activities as AQAP’s senior military commander, al-Rimi has played an important role in recruiting the current generation of militants making up the Yemen-based AQAP,” the State Department said when announcing his designation, four months after AQAP was named an FTO.
Rimi is the target of a $5 million Rewards for Justice reward offer.
In a 2013 message “to the American nation,” posted on a militant website, Rimi said America’s “security is not achieved by despoiling other nations’ security or by attacking and oppressing them,” urging the U.S. to “leave us with our religion, land and nations and mind your own internal affairs.”
Yemen is in turmoil following the ousting of the government by Shi’ite Houthi militia, with neighboring Saudi Arabia leading a deadly campaign of airstrikes against the Shi’ite group’s positions which began last March. Militants from AQAP and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been exploiting the chaos to expand their reach too.
According to Yemen Post the Hadramout city of Mukalla, where Wuhayshi was reportedly killed, was seized by AQAP fighters two weeks ago.