Is al-Qaida’s New No. 2 Confident or Just Crazy?

The World
How It Works
April 16 2014 12:04 PM

Is al-Qaida’s New No. 2 Confident or Just Crazy?

143566152-al-qaeda-in-the-arabian-peninsula-chief-nasser-al
Wuhayshi in 2012.

Photo by -/AFP/GettyImages

Al-Qaida’s general manager (more often referred to as the terror network's “No. 2”) is a position with a pretty high turnover rate. There was Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2010, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2012.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

So it’s particularly shocking to see the current occupant of that position, Nasir al-Wuhayshi—also the emir of an offshoot group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, brazenly holding an open-air meeting in Yemen with more than 100 fighters in attendance.

Advertisement

This could be a sign that AQAP is feeling more secure. (A jailbreak in the capital, Sana'a, was a recent success for the group.) Or it could simply be reckless: While the U.S. drone war may be on hold in Pakistan, strikes continue with brutal regularity in Yemen.

Wuhayshi is believed to have been tapped for the GM position by global al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri following al-Libi’s death, in a sign that power is shifting from al-Qaida’s traditional base in Pakistan to AQAP, which has clearly been the most active and dangerous branch of the group for some time.

The Yemen-born Wuhayshi served as Osama Bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan from the early 1990s until the 9/11 attacks, and fought at the Battle of Tora Bora. After al-Qaida fled the country, Wuhayshi wound up in Iran for a time, was deported to Yemen and arrested, then escaped in a now-famous jailbreak in 2006.

After his escape, he helped found AQAP, responsible for numerous attacks within Yemen and known internationally for the 2003 Riyadh bombing, the 2008 attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, the attempted 2009 Detroit plane attack, and the online propaganda of Anwar al-Awlaki. A member of al-Qaida’s younger generation, Wuhayshi is reportedly known for his Internet savvy and played a role in the founding of Awlaki’s Inspire magazine.  

In a 2010 New York Times article, a Yemeni journalist who has met him describes him as “laconic but quick-witted, with flashes of sarcastic humor and a remarkable ability to adduce Koranic verses to back up anything he said.” Wuhayshi seemed to be emulating his mentor Bin Laden in his leadership style: “more cerebral guide than day-to-day commander.”

In his current position, Wuhayshi’s duties encompass not only his own regional affiliate but all of al-Qaida’s groups. According to reporting by the Daily Beast, a “conference call”—which was likely not an actual phone call—he organized with Zawahiri last year involved “leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch.”

That meeting was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, prompting the closing of embassies throughout the region. Given the ease with which the plans discussed at that meeting seem to have been disrupted, it’s possible that a face-to-face meeting—despite the risk of a drone strike—was seen as less operationally risky.

Whatever the reason, it seems like an awfully big gamble from an al-Qaida commander who’s been fairly canny up until now.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.