WASHINGTON: U.S. authorities believe a drone strike has killed the leader of al-Qaida’s feared affiliate in Yemen, a group that has repeatedly sought to launch ambitious attacks on or over American soil, a U.S. counterterrorism official said Monday.
Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi evaded U.S. drones and counterterrorism raids in Yemen for years while leading what many analysts consider to be the terrorist network’s most dangerous and active chapter, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Under Wahishi’s leadership, AQAP, as the group is known, 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 crevices or smuggled through airport security.
American officials have 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.
There is “no reason to doubt that claim,” the counterterrorism official said.
If confirmed, Wahishi’s death would be a major victory for the United States.
Wahishi, one of the world’s most-wanted militants, was a close ally of al-Qaida’s founder, Osama bin Laden. After bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, his successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, named Wahishi as his deputy, and U.S. officials considered him a major contender to lead al-Qaida someday.
Reports of his death came a day after U.S. warplanes launched an airstrike in eastern Libya that targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al-Qaida-linked militant who pioneered lucrative kidnap-for-ransom schemes in North Africa and who led a brazen 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant that left 38 foreign hostages dead.
The strikes against two elusive and powerful al-Qaida leaders in a matter of days signal an increasing tempo of U.S. counterterrorism operations against groups that have specifically targeted Americans.
They come as the Obama administration’s efforts to push back Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq have stalled, and as U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen were severely hobbled after the U.S.-backed government was ousted by local Shiite Muslim fighters called Houthis.
The Houthis also oppose AQAP, but it’s unclear whether they provided any of the intelligence that led to Friday’s drone strike.
Wahishi turned AQAP into the “most aggressive of al-Qaida affiliates trying to target the U.S., and doing it in ways that were fairly ingenious,” said Seth Jones, a former U.S. counterterrorism official now with the Rand Corp. think tank.
With Wahishi’s death and the rise of Islamic State as a rival, “al-Qaida is in rough shape,” Jones said.
But he said al-Qaida has proved to be resilient. “Time and time again, the death of a senior leader does not destroy the group,” Jones said.
In recent months, AQAP has exploited the instability in Yemen’s multisided civil war to take control of territory.
U.S. drone strikes and commando raids had forced the group into the shadows, but 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.
Wahishi, who was born in Yemen, quickly expanded the al-Qaida operation after he escaped from a Yemeni prison in February 2006 along with 22 other al-Qaida operatives.
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 Sanaa, 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.
The U.S. State Department offered a $10 million bounty for information leading to his location.
Officials said AQAP’s primary bomb maker, Ibrahim Asiri, 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.