U.S. intelligence has confirmed that a CIA drone strike has killed the founder and leader of Al Qaeda’s feared affiliate in Yemen, a significant setback to a group that has repeatedly sought to launch audacious attacks against America, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi was second-in-command and heir apparent to Ayman Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama Bin Laden as head of the global terrorist network. Wahishi's death is arguably the most significant strike against the group since a CIA-led raid killed Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Wahishi had evaded U.S. drones and counter-terrorism raids in Yemen for years while building what U.S. intelligence has called Al Qaeda's most dangerous and active franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Under his leadership, AQAP repeatedly attempted to smuggle sophisticated bombs onto passenger jets and cargo planes headed for the United States. The group specialized in bombs designed to be hidden in body cavities or smuggled through airport security.
"Wahishi's death strikes a major blow to AQAP, Al Qaida's most dangerous affiliate, and to Al Qaeda more broadly," Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Tuesday in a statement.
"Wahishi had led AQAP since its founding in 2009 and oversaw the group's plotting against the United States, U.S. interests in the Arabian Peninsula, and those of our allies in the region," he added.
Analysts said AQAP remains a potent threat despite the death of its leader.
Wahishi turned AQAP into the “most aggressive of Al Qaeda affiliates trying to target the U.S., and doing it in ways that were fairly ingenious,” said Seth Jones, a former U.S. counter-terrorism official now with the Rand Corp think tank.
But he said Al Qaeda has proved to be resilient. “Time and time again, the death of a senior leader does not destroy the group,” Jones said.
The U.S. confirmation came several hours after Khaled Batrafi, a senior AQAP operative, announced Wahishi's death in a video. He said Wahishi has been replaced by the group's military commander, Qassim Raimi, and vowed to continue fighting the "crusaders and their agents," meaning the United States and its allies.
U.S. intelligence officials had been working to verify reports from Yemen that Wahishi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the southern port city of Mukalla on Friday.
Confirmation of his death came two days after U.S. warplanes launched an airstrike in eastern Libya that targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Al Qaeda veteran who led a brazen 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant that left 38 foreign hostages dead, including three Americans.
The strikes against two elusive and powerful Al Qaeda leaders in a matter of days signal an increasing tempo of U.S. counter-terrorism operations against groups that have specifically targeted Americans.
They come as the Obama administration’s efforts to push back Islamic State militants in Iraq have stalled. The White House last week said it would send 450 more U.S. military advisers and support personnel to bolster the campaign, and is considering expanding the U.S. military presence with additional bases.
In Yemen, AQAP has taken advantage of the chaos of a multi-sided civil war that erupted after Shiite Muslim rebels known as the Houthis pushed out the U.S. backed government early this year, which hobbled U.S. counter-terrorism operations in the country.
No longer confined to the shadows, fighters loyal to Wahishi seized a regional airport and a coastal oil terminal in April before taking control of Mukalla, the port on the Arabian Sea where he was killed.
The Houthis also oppose AQAP, but it’s unclear whether they provided any of the intelligence that led to Friday’s drone strike. The State Department had offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Wahishi's location.
Wahishi, who was born in Yemen, quickly expanded the Al Qaeda operation after he escaped from a Yemeni prison in February 2006 along with 22 other Al Qaeda operatives. He formed AQAP in 2009, and the group soon eclipsed the core Al Qaeda leadership based in Pakistan.
U.S. officials said Wahishi was responsible for approving AQAP targets, recruiting members, allocating financial resources and directing operatives to hit specific targets.
In 2008, Wahishi helped organize small-arms attacks on foreign tourists and a series of mortar attacks against diplomatic missions in Sana, Yemen’s capital. That September, he helped plan an attack that detonated two vehicles laden with explosives outside the U.S. Embassy, killing 19 people.
U.S. airstrikes have repeatedly targeted AQAP's primary bomb maker, Ibrahim Asiri, but he apparently remains at large.
A Saudi national, Asiri has been working for years to create a nonmetallic explosive that can evade airport security and blow up a jetliner.
A bomb he designed was used in a failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009. That bomb, which was hidden in a recruit's underwear, passed undetected through airport security but failed to detonate.
That plot spurred the Transportation Security Administration to revamp airport security, adding body scanners and pat-downs to passenger screening.
In October 2010, Saudi intelligence helped U.S. and British authorities disrupt an AQAP plot to smuggle explosives in printer cartridges that were shipped on cargo planes bound for Chicago. Counter-terrorism officials believe Asiri designed those bombs as well.
Asiri also designed a bomb that his younger brother hid in a body cavity before he met Saudi Arabia's counter-intelligence chief. The explosion killed only the bomber.
In 2013, more than 20 U.S. embassies were temporarily closed across the Middle East and North Africa in response to a threat traced to AQAP.
AQAP also claimed responsibility for the lethal rampage by several gunmen at a satirical magazine in Paris early this year. U.S. officials said one of the gunmen had received training in Yemen.