Al-Wuhayshi's death deprives al Qaeda of a dynamic heavyweight

Story highlights

  • To many observers, Nasir al-Wuhayshi's death is the most significant blow to al Qaeda since the killing of militant Anwar al-Awlaki
  • Al-Wuhayshi rejected ISIS, swore an oath to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and was appointed al Qaeda's second in command
  • His successor is military commander Qasim al-Raymi, who's considered al Qaeda's operational brains

(CNN)Nasir al-Wuhayshi didn't fit the stereotype of a terrorist leader: He was slight, quiet and had an impish sense of humor, according to one of the few Westerners to have met him. But he also had an understated charisma and inspired awe and deep loyalty among al Qaeda fighters in Yemen.

Even though he was only in his late 30s, al-Wuhayshi had more than 20 years of experience fighting jihad and had been close to Osama bin Laden. To many observers, his death is the most significant individual blow to al Qaeda since the killing of militant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki (also in Yemen) four years ago. Morten Storm, a Danish informant for Western intelligence who got access to al-Wuhayshi early in 2012, describes him as "one of the last al Qaeda heavyweights, a fighter's fighter."
Al-Wuhayshi had fashioned al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, into the only affiliate capable of both taking territory on its home turf and planning sophisticated attacks overseas. The "underpants" bomb designed to bring down a U.S. airliner over Detroit, the plot to blow up planes with printer bombs (which very nearly succeeded), a complex attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo this year: They and many other conspiracies were hatched by AQAP from its redoubt in Yemen's mountainous southeast.
To his admirers, al-Wuhayshi also seemed untouchable. Once bin Laden's personal secretary in Afghanistan, he returned to Yemen and was jailed -- only to escape in a massive breakout of al Qaeda prisoners in 2006. Under his leadership, al Qaeda in Yemen soon became al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and attracted Saudi recruits -- some of them former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. There were rumors that al-Wuhayshi was killed in a U.S. missile strike in December 2009, but he soon resurfaced.
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He was also seen as the brains behind an ambitious plan to attack U.S. diplomatic missions in 2013 -- one that led to the temporary closure of some 20 U.S. embassies.
Al-Wuhayshi contributed to this aura with a brazenly open appearance in front of dozens of jihadists in a video released last year. Apparently oblivious to the danger of a missile strike, he tells the group: "We must eliminate the cross. ... The bearer of the cross is America!" Despite opportunities at home, AQAP was still very much focused on distant enemies.
The United States recognized al-Wuhayshi's significance in declaring him a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" in 2010, offering a reward of $10 million for information on his whereabouts.

The challenge from ISIS

At a time when al Qaeda is being challenged across the Middle East by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, al-Wuhayshi was a totemic figure as leader of the group's most effective and resilient affiliate. ISIS may have become the destination of choice for a new generation of militants, but al-Wuhayshi rejected it unequivocally, swearing a personal oath, or bayat, of allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and being appointed the group's second in command globally.
In statements late last year, AQAP criticized ISIS for distributing videos of beheadings. And one of its leading ideologues, Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari, complained that "our brothers in the Islamic State ... surprised us with several steps, including their announcement of the caliphate (and) they announced the expansion of the caliphate in a number of countries where they have no governance," Yemen no doubt included.
Even so, one very influential Yemeni cleric has been calling on AQAP to pledge its allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And ISIS has continued to establish its presence in Yemen undaunted, with massive suicide bombings of Houthi gatherings in the capital last year and further attacks against Houthi forces since. Its numbers may be in the dozens there, compared with AQAP's in the many hundreds -- according to Yemeni officials -- but it has made its mark.

The succession

If al-Zawahiri is the figurehead, a distant chairman of the board, al-Wuhayshi was the dynamic chief executive officer. Not that his death will lead to AQAP's liquidation. Among al Qaeda groups -- and despite successful drone attacks against several of its leading figures -- AQAP has considerable stamina.
Even so, al-Wuhayshi's demise deprives the group of the leading light in a tight nucleus that has run the organization since its inception, a cohort that according to a study of AQAP by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point "avoided the strategic mistakes that commonly defeat jihadists elsewhere, keeping AQAP relevant in a highly competitive domestic and international environment."
One of the few left in that cohort is now al-Wuhayshi's successor: military commander Qasim al-Raymi, considered the operational brains of the franchise. He has probably been involved in every major decision of the last decade, but is only 37. Like al-Wuhayshi, he was also designated by the U.S. in 2010, with a reward of $5 million attached.
Al-Raymi comes from an area near Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. He escaped jail with al-Wuhayshi nine years ago and was planning sabotage attacks against oil installations within months. Some Saudi officials see him as more dangerous than al-Wuhayshi in terms of his ability to plan attacks. He is thought to have conceived the plan to assassinate then-head of Saudi intelligence Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, in 2009. Al Qaeda's chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, engineered the device, which was inserted into his brother's rectum but failed to kill bin Nayef.
Al-Raymi is important for another reason: He is Yemeni, in a group that includes Saudis and other foreigners.
"Removing this top tier of Yemenis while leaving the group's foreign leaders in place would be a catastrophic loss for the group, in effect stripping it of the local credibility and strategic guidance essential to endure in Yemen," concludes the Combating Terrorism Center.
Most counterterrorism analysts expect al-Raymi to keep AQAP in the al Qaeda fold, but whether he will have the ability to dent ISIS' budding appeal in Yemen is an open question. He does not have links to "AQ Central" as deep as al-Wuhayshi's, but he was also in al Qaeda's Afghan camps as a teenager in the 1990s.
Al-Raymi -- like his predecessor -- sees the war in Yemen as part of "America's broader war against Islam, one in which the United States used Muslim forces to advance its objectives in Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine," according to the Combating Terrorism Center report. He has been excoriating about the drone campaign's effect on Yemen's civilian population.
One tidbit on al-Raymi: He may have a blond Croatian wife. In 2009, Morten Storm, an informant for Western intelligence, found and introduced by video a young woman called Irena Horak to al-Awlaki. The cleric was then living in a remote area of Marib province and apparently was desperate for a Western wife. Horak renamed herself Aminah, flew to Yemen and married him.
When al-Awlaki was killed, Western intelligence officials told Storm that Aminah may have become al-Raymi's wife. There was even a plan to track down al-Raymi by sending a bugged makeup box to Aminah.

The future

AQAP's fortunes will in great part depend on whether Yemen as a state falls into the abyss or is somehow patched back together thanks to international mediation. The group has flourished since the Houthi takeover of the capital and other parts of central Yemen. As a Shia sect, the Houthis inspire loathing among militant Sunnis, a useful recruiting tool for AQAP.
For a while in 2013 and 2014, AQAP was forced onto its back foot as a reorganized Yemeni military, supported by U.S. intelligence and drone warfare, went on the offensive. But the chaos of the last nine months has allowed al Qaeda to re-establish itself in provinces like Shabwa and Hadramaut in the south. It is now one of several actors -- the Houthis, loyalists to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, southern secessionists, the Saudis -- in a complex battlefield of shifting alliances.
AQAP has enjoyed the ungoverned space provided by Yemen's implosion, essentially taking over towns like the port of Mukalla in the south while retaining hideouts used by bomb-maker al-Asiri and his apprentices. It has benefited from another mass prison break and the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from a base in eastern Yemen. But al-Wuhayshi's death -- along with drone strikes against several other AQAP figures in recent months -- shows that the U.S. retains reach and intelligence in Yemen. And to some analysts, al-Raymi and al-Asiri are the last surviving "big" players in AQAP.
So al-Raymi inherits a mantle where risk and opportunity are in almost equal measure. But he certainly knows the territory.