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

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.

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

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 1:04 PM Which States Should Secede From the Union?
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.