Nasser al-Wuhayshi: The U.S. just killed its most important al-Qaida target since Bin Laden.

The U.S. Just Killed Its Most Important al-Qaida Target Since Bin Laden

The U.S. Just Killed Its Most Important al-Qaida Target Since Bin Laden

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June 16 2015 12:17 PM

The U.S. Just Killed Its Most Important al-Qaida Target Since Bin Laden

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Nasser al-Wuhayshi in 2012.

Photo by -/AFP/GettyImages

By the standards of al-Qaeda deputies, Nasser al-Wuhayshi had a fairly long run. The boss of the Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, Wuhayshi was named al-Qaida’s global “general manager” and second-in-command to Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2013.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs. 

The position directly behind Zawahiri on al-Qaida’s org chart is a job with extremely high turnover: Wuhayshi’s predecessor, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was taken out by a U.S. drone in 2012, as was his predecessor Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in 2011. Before Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011, it was the terror network’s “number three” that was the impossible job to keep filled. Mustafa Abu al-Yazid was killed by a drone in 2010, as were his predecessors Abu Hamza Rabia, Abu Laith al-Libi and Mohammed Atef. Abu Farraj al-Libbi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and Abu Zubaydah, other former No. 3s, have been taken into U.S. custody.

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As recently as last spring, Wuhayshi seemed pretty unconcerned with his own safety, appearing at an open-air meeting with more than 100 fighters in attendance. But this week Wuhayshi met the fate that seems preordained for holders of his position, with AQAP announcing that he had been killed in a U.S. drone strike. (This track record makes Zawahiri’s 17-year run in al-Qaida's senior leadership fairly astonishing.)

More influential and independent than his predecessors, Wuhayshi once served as Osama Bin Laden’s personal secretary in Afghanistan and may be the most important al-Qaida figure killed since his mentor. Under his leadership, AQAP grew into al-Qaida’s most potent affiliate. It is both a force on the ground in its home country, taking over territory and battling government forces and Shiite rebels in Yemen, and has been linked to international plots including the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt and—less directly—this year’s Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

Given the typically short lifespan of holders of his job, it’s not surprising that AQAP was able to quickly name a successor: military commander Qasim al-Raymi. Raymi is also a veteran of Afghanistan and was—along with Wuhayshi—one of the 23 al-Qaida militants who took part in a brazen prison escape in 2006, digging a tunnel hundreds of feet long from their cell to a next-door mosque.

In 2009 he appeared, clad in a suicide vest alongside Wuhayshi, in a video announcing that al-Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi affiliates had merged to form AQAP. According to Gregory Johnsen’s book The Last Refuge, he was the mastermind behind the 2009 suicide bombing that nearly killed Saudi counterterrorism chief Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is now next in line for the throne. Raymi’s younger brother Ali is currently a detainee in Guantánamo Bay.   

Raymi takes over a time when al-Qaida has been successfully expanding its territory but has seen its leadership ranks decimated by U.S. drone strikes. Another of Wuhayshi’s top deputies, Nasser al-Ansi, had taken credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack and was killed just last month.

Wuhayshi’s death is an indication that the U.S. drone war in Yemen hasn’t been significantly hampered by the overthrow of the country’s pro-American government at the hands of the Iranian-supported Houthis in January.

It’s unclear right now if Raymi will also take over Wuhayshi’s international responsibilities as Zawahiri’s No. 2. Globally, al-Qaida is under pressure both from the ongoing U.S. drone campaign and from the rapid rise of rival ISIS, which is fighting it for territory in several countries and appears to be winning the battle for global recruits. Given those pressures, and the fate of his predecessors, he might think twice about taking the job.