When the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was promoted to second-in-command of Al Qaeda’s global operations, it sparked a high-level terror alert in the Middle East that has continued this week, writes Saul Austerlitz
The tunnel was approximately 140 metres long. It began inside a prison cell in a jail run by Yemeni military intelligence in Sanaa, and it ended in the women’s bathroom of a nearby mosque. Prisoners secretly dug from inside, and others, perhaps Al Qaeda sympathisers among Yemen’s Political Security Organisation, dug from the outside, and when the two sides met, 23 men escaped. The news reports in February 2006 concentrated on the daring escape of Jamal Al Badawi, convicted and sentenced to death for his involvement in the deadly attack on the USS Cole in 2000. But among the other, lesser-known Al Qaeda members involved in the escape, one in particular would come to future prominence: a militant with a stony countenance and a penchant for barbed witticisms named Nasser Al Wuhayshi, now leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) and new second-in-command for Al Qaeda worldwide. “Wuhayshi later boasted,” according to Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars, “that they performed morning prayers before literally walking out the front door.”
Al Wuhayshi was reportedly contacted by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in recent weeks, and appointed general manager of Al Qaeda’s international operations, functionally given the authority to order terror attacks around the world. Al Wuhayshi now occupies a position once filled by Al Zawahiri, and left open since the death of Abu Yahya Al Libi last year. Their conversation, and Al Wuhayshi’s plot (according to reports by Yemeni security services) to attack an oil depot, prompted the United States to evacuate its embassy employees from Yemen and 15 other countries, and to issue a worldwide alert for American travellers.
He is, from the little known about him, an unlikely figure for so prominent a role. Al Wuhayshi is under five feet tall, and his on-camera appearances in Al Qaeda videos have mostly been unremarkable: “In videotapes he sits motionless, his pinched face blank, his small eyes expressionless,” observed Robert Worth in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article, calling him “almost catatonic”. But Al Wuhayshi is representative of the wave of Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen and North Africa that have emerged after the sidelining, and then the death, of Osama bin Laden. He is ferociously dedicated to the cause of Islamist violence around the world, with a Quranic verse at his fingertips for every one of his decisions. “Wherever there are mujaheddin,” he said in a 2010 interview, “there is danger awaiting the disbelievers. The mujaheddin are one body and if one of them is somewhere you would find fear and terror spreading in that place.”
The 36-year-old was born in the Abyan province of Yemen. After attending religious schools, Al Wuhayshi ventured to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, while the Taliban was still in power. He eventually became personal secretary to Osama bin Laden, and took charge of the Al Qaeda training camp at Tarnak Farms. He regularly saw bin Laden during the Al Qaeda leader’s stays at Tarnak Farms, often spending his mornings together with bin Laden, according to Nasser Al Bahri’s Guarding Bin Laden: My Life in Al Qaeda. Al Wuhayshi stuck closely to bin Laden at all times, even during the bombing raids after the American invasion in the fall of 2001. Al Wuhayshi was chosen, along with top Al Qaeda deputies like Al Zawahiri, to accompany bin Laden as he fled to the caves of Tora Bora.
After the collapse of the Taliban, Al Wuhayshi absconded from Afghanistan along with bin Laden, eventually ending up in Iran. He spent two years in an Iranian prison before being repatriated back to Yemen. The Yemeni authorities jailed him without trial, where he spent three more years before his escape. After bin Laden went into hiding in Abbottabad, Al Wuhayshi was one of the few trusted associates allowed to remain in touch with the Al Qaeda leader, exchanging letters sent via courier.
Al Wuhayshi rapidly asserted himself among the leadership of Al Qaeda in Yemen following his jailbreak. His operatives attacked the US Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008 with a multi-pronged operation that included suicide bombers and militants with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, killing 10 Yemenis. The then-president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, secretly reached out to Al Wuhayshi and other Al Qaeda leaders, offering them immunity and the release of jailed militants from Yemeni prisons if they put down their weapons and left for another country. Al Wuhayshi refused to negotiate with Saleh, whom he saw as the leader of an illegitimate government.
In a January 2009 press conference, surrounded by a motley array of weapons, Al Wuhayshi announced the formation of Aqap, formed from the union of his organisation, Al Qaeda in Yemen, with various Saudi extremist groups. Al Wuhayshi saw politically unstable Yemen as a potential launching pad for terrorist attacks, in the Arabian Peninsula and around the world. According to the 2010 New York Times Magazine article: “Wuhayshi appears to be modelling himself on bin Laden, who has always been more cerebral guide than day-to-day commander.”
Eli Lake reported in The Daily Beast that Al Wuhayshi contacted bin Laden in late 2010, suggesting American-born cleric Anwar Al Awlaki as his replacement as head of Aqap. Rather than voluntarily ceding his power, Al Wuhayshi was hoping to ascend into the central hierarchy of Al Qaeda. (Others, including Jeremy Scahill, suggested that Al Wuhayshi proposed Al Awlaki so as to take advantage of the publicity generated by the American drive to kill or capture him.) Instead, with bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants dead, power has flowed away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and toward the more brutal, and occasionally more effective, Yemeni branch of the organisation. New America Foundation fellow Barak Barfi argues that Al Wuhayshi has “effectively rebuilt a dead organisation and even made it stronger.”
Unlike the central organisation of Al Qaeda, decimated by American air strikes and the death of bin Laden in 2011, Aqap retained the ability to execute attacks outside Yemen. In 2009, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to detonate an explosive aboard an American airplane and the attempted assassination of Saudi government minister Muhammad bin Nayef were both Aqap operations. Al Wuhayshi’s strategy shifted over time, away from sending militants to Iraq and Afghanistan, and toward killing Westerners in Yemen, now conflated with Saudi Arabia in his group’s rhetoric: “It is shameful to go to Baghdad and Kabul when the infidel desecrates our land, which they are not permitted to enter.”
Aqap has also proved to be effective in its distribution of materials – magazines in both Arabic and English, videos, audio recordings – articulating an extremist agenda. Al Wuhayshi advocates an “open-source jihad” model, its propaganda material intended to find their way into the hands of independent extremists worldwide. Much of it follows the lead of bin Laden-era Al Qaeda communiqués, replete with references to the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Mohammed cartoons and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.
Reversing his one-time mentor bin Laden, Al Wuhayshi prioritised fighting the “near enemy” at home to the “far enemy” abroad. His primary target was the Yemeni government, which he saw as impeding the arrival of Sharia law in the country. Aqap has reached out to local tribal leaders, especially those in southern Yemen, promising to overthrow the government and install Sharia law. Aqap controlled parts of southern Yemen for more than a year in 2011-2012, instituting a brutal form of justice on its inhabitants, with Al Wuhayshi establishing a base for himself in the town of Jaar. Last year, the Yemeni military retook the territory and sent Al Wuhayshi and other top Aqap operatives fleeing for more remote, tribally controlled areas.
In contrast with the stolid Al Zawahiri, Al Wuhayshi is seen as the more influential leader. He is respected by Aqap members for his soft-spoken fanaticism, and for his direct personal link to bin Laden. “When they see him,” said a journalist who had interviewed Al Wuhayshi, “they kiss him on the forehead, like a great sheikh.” In a 2010 interview with Al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire, he spoke directly to Muslims in the West, suggesting their radicalisation would be even more preferable than that of Muslims in the Middle East or Asia, because “they are living in a place where they can cause great harm to the enemy”. Al Wuhayshi bluntly commanded all Western Muslims that they must emigrate to Muslim countries: “The Messenger of Allah discouraged living amongst the disbelievers, so how about living at ease amongst them when the Messenger of Allah is being attacked and you do nothing to defend him or leave the land where he is being cursed? What will you answer your Lord on the Day of Judgement?”
1976-77 Born in Yemen
Mid-1990s Travels to Afghanistan to volunteer with Al Qaeda
2001 Flees with Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora following the American invasion of Afghanistan
2003 Captured in Iran, and eventually jailed in Yemen
2006 Escapes from a Sanaa prison along with Jamal Al Badawi and other militants
2008 Coordinates an attack on the US Embassy in Sanaa
2009 Announces the establishment of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Aqab coordinates attempted attacks on an American airliner and a Saudi government minister
2011-12 Aqab seizes control of a tribal region of Yemen, and imposes a harsh version of Sharia law
2013 Appointed general manager and second-in-command of Al Qaeda by its leader Ayman Al Zawahiri; subsequently, the US shuts its embassies in Yemen and 15 other countries