Abdul Rahman al Wuhayshi, the brother of Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, may have been killed in a US airstrike in southern Yemen. The strike is the first reported to have been carried out by the US since Anwar al Awlaki’s son was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in October.
Abdul Rahman is said to have been killed yesterday by unmanned US Predator or Reaper drones in a strike in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, which is currently under the control of AQAP, according to The Associated Press. Today, Yemeni officials and local tribesmen in Zinjibar told Reuters that Abdul Rahman was killed in a US drone strike.
The death of Abdul Rahman, whose role in AQAP is unknown, has not been confirmed. AQAP has not announced his death. Yemeni officials have declared his brother Nasir dead several times in the past, but the reports have been false.
Nasir al Wuhayshi was rumored to have been killed during fighting in late August with the 201st Brigade of the Yemeni Army in the Dofas area just outside of Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan [see LWJ report, AQAP chief Nasir al Wuhayshi reported killed in southern Yemen]. In late October, AQAP issued an official denial of his death, and included a previously unseen photo of him [see LWJ report, AQAP denies emir Nasir al Wuhayshi killed in US airstrike].
AQAP describes Dofas as a major battlefront in its war against the Yemeni state. Zinjibar and the southern Yemeni cities of Sharqa and Azzan, as well as vast regions in the south, are under the control of AQAP.
Government forces and AQAP fighters, under the aegis of Ansar al Shariah, have been battling for months on the outskirts of Zinjibar. AQAP forces have held off three Yemeni Army brigades to maintain control of Zinjibar.
Background on known US strikes in Yemen
Yesterday’s drone strike in Zinjibar is the first reported attack by the US since the strike in Azzan in Shabwa province that killed Abdul Rahman al Awlaki, the son of AQAP ideologue Anwar al Awalki, on Oct. 14. That strike targeted an Egyptian named Ibrahim al Bana who served as AQAP’s media emir. Al Bana was not killed in the strike.
Just hours before he was killed, Abdul Rahman al Awlaki had said he wanted “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it,” according to a Yemeni journalist who supports AQAP. [See LWJ report, Anwar al Awlaki’s son hoped ‘to attain martyrdom as my father attained it.’]
Anwar was killed in a US Predator drone airstrike on Sept. 30 in Yemen’s Al Jawf province, where al Qaeda is known to operate training camps. In addition to serving as a recruiter and ideologue for AQAP, Anwar is known to have played a role in directing terror attacks against the US. [See LWJ report, Awlaki’s emails to terror plotter show operational role, for more information.]
The US is thought to have carried out at least 16 air and missile strikes inside Yemen since December 2009. Other recent airstrikes are thought to have been carried out by the US also, but little evidence has emerged to directly link the attacks to the US. [For more information on the US airstrikes in Yemen, see LWJ report, Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2011.]
The CIA has taken control of the strikes against AQAP in Yemen from the US military, which had been operating the program. The CIA wants to use the unmanned Predator and Reaper strike aircraft, which the US employs for strikes against terrorist group based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Previously, the US military has targeted AQAP in Yemen using cruise missiles and fixed-wing strike aircraft, although Predators are known to have been used in two of the strikes.
Since the beginning of May, the US is known to have carried out 10 airstrikes in Yemen, counting yesterday’s strike.
One strike, on June 3, targeted several senior AQAP operatives. AQAP later confirmed that Ali Abdullah Naji al Harithi and Ammar Abadah Nasser al Wa’eli were killed in the attack.
The US strikes have been controversial, as civilians have been killed in the attacks. One strike, a Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Dec. 17, 2009, hit what was thought to be a training camp run by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the town of Ma’jalah in the province Abyan. The attack reportedly killed 14 al Qaeda fighters, along with 41 civilians.
Since December 2009, some of the top leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been targeted in airstrikes, including Nasir al Wuhayshi, the group’s leader; Said Ali al Shihri, the second in command; Abu Hurayrah Qasim al Raymi, the military commander; Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, the top ideologue; and Anwar al Awlaki. Although Yemen had claimed that the AQAP leaders were killed in the various strikes, they all resurfaced later to deny the reports.
Yemen has become one of al Qaeda’s most secure bases and a hub for its activities on the Arabian Peninsula and on the Horn of Africa. AQAP maintains safe havens in various parts of the country and is also known to operate terror camps in Aden, Marib, and Abyan, and in the Alehimp and Sanhan regions in Sana’a. The terror group has conducted attacks on oil facilities, tourists, the US embassy in Sana’a, and Yemeni security forces.
AQAP’s base in Yemen serves as a command and control center, a logistics hub, a transit point from Asia and the Peninsula, and a source of weapons and munitions for the al Qaeda-backed Shabaab in Somalia.
AQAP has also used its Yemeni base as a hub for attacks against the West. The 2009 Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas Day airline plot, as well as an airline parcel bomb plot in 2010, have all been traced back to Yemen.
“Yemen is Pakistan in the heart of the Arab world,” a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal in 2009. “You have military and government collusion with al Qaeda, peace agreements, budding terror camps, and the export of jihad to neighboring countries.”
Background on Nasir al Wuhayshi
Before becoming the head of al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula, Wuhayshi served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp. He was one of 23 al Qaeda operatives to escape from a Yemeni jail in 2006. He is considered to be a top contender to take command of the global terror network if al Qaeda’s central leadership based in Pakistan is decapitated, a senior US military intelligence official who closely tracks al Qaeda’s network told The Long War Journal.
Wuhayshi was recently heard from, when he released an audiotape on July 26 swearing allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, the new leader of al Qaeda. Wuhayshi pledged that he and the AQAP fighters under his command would follow Zawahiri’s orders and fight “the enemies without leniency or surrender until Islam rules.”
Under Wuhayshi’s orders, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has created Ansar al Sharia, the political front for its operations in Yemen. Ansar al Sharia is analogous to al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq. On Aug. 20, Ansar al Sharia released a videotape of a suicide attack in Aden that killed five Yemeni soldiers.
For more information on Ansar al Sharia, AQAP’s rise in southern Yemen, and US counterterrorism efforts, see LWJ report, US ‘drones’ kill 15 al Qaeda fighters in southern Yemen.