Over a year ago, Nasir al Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s general manager, provided guidance to the terror group’s branch in North Africa on waging war, administering conquered territories, and engaging in a media campaign. Wuhayshi, who also doubles as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s emir, is reported to have been recently named as the general manager of al Qaeda. Although the date of his appointment is not known, his letters to the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb indicate he was either already serving in that capacity or being groomed for the new responsibility by the late spring of 2012.
The two letters, written in May 2012 and August 2012, were obtained and translated by The Associated Press. The letters are among thousands of documents recovered at an AQIM headquarters in northern Mali after AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa were driven from the region by a French intervention that began in January 2013.
In the first letter, written three months after the three terror groups seized control of northern Mali, Wuhayshi addresses “the dear Sheikh,” who presumably is Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and advises him provide services to the people and to be patient in implementing sharia, or Islamic law.
“You have to take a gradual approach with them when it comes to their religious practices,” Wuhayshi says, according to AP, noting that the people in northern Mali have been living in “sin” for a long period of time.
“You canʼt beat people for drinking alcohol when they donʼt even know the basics of how to pray,” he continues. “We have to first stop the great sins, and then move gradually to the lesser and lesser ones.”
In some cases, AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine did not follow this advice, and strictly enforced sharia. Beating, amputations, and executions were reported in several areas in northern Mali while the three al Qaeda groups administered northern Mali.
In the second letter, written in August 2012, Wuhayshi shares al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s military experiences in the face of a Yemeni government offensive to retake large areas of southern Yemen after AQAP gained control of much of Abyan and Shabwa provinces in May 2011. The Yemeni military launched an offensive to retake the provinces in May 2012. AQAP and its political front, Ansar al Sharia, which is led by Wuhayshi, administered much of southern Yemen during that time.
Wuhayshi says that “after four months of fighting we were forced to withdraw.”
“The offensive was very tough and it could hardly be stopped before achieving all its targets,” he says. The US aided the Yemeni military with air support, including Predators and Reapers that struck AQAP leaders, operatives, and fighters. AQAP withdrew after realizing “the campaign would have been long and would have exhausted us both in terms of casualties and money,” and that civilian losses would have harmed the group.
But Wuhayshi maintains that the investment was worth it, despite the cost, and that AQAP was able to preserve its top leadership cadre while essentially fighting a rearguard action.
“The control of these areas during one year cost us 500 martyrs, 700 wounded, 10 cases of hand or leg amputation and nearly $20 million,” he says.
“We withdrew successfully and in time to circumvent their goal of killing our leaders, and taking others as POWs,” he claims. AQAP’s leadership cadre remains intact today, despite an intense US drone campaign that continues to this day.
“People became familiar with us, and our Islamic model was well received in the areas under our control,” he adds.
Wuhayshi also states that AQAP’s “position now is far better” despite its losses, as the year of governing large areas gave it “a rare opportunity for guerrilla warfare and liquidations [assassinations].” And “most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid from through the spoils” of war as well as by taking hostages.
He notes that the “Popular Committees,” or local tribal groups that sided with the government, are AQAP’s greatest obstacle. Also, “spies” who “infiltrate the ranks of the mujahideen” have provided intelligence to the US to target AQAP leaders in drone strikes. AQAP has publicly executed such “spies” in the past.
Finally, Wuhaysi advises Droukdel to engage in media activities (he describes the media as “our most important weapon”) and to delay in declaring an Islamic state (he notes that both AQAP and Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somali, have refrained from doing so on the advice of al Qaeda’s “General Command”). He also cautions that long campaigns are “exhaustive in terms of money, men and weapons,” and advises AQIM to avoid a protracted campaign.
“Hold on to your previous bases in the mountains, forests and deserts and prepare other refuges for the worst-case scenario,” he says. “This is what we came to realize after our withdrawal.”
AQIM and its allies followed some of Wuhayshi’s advice. The three jihadist groups engaged in an aggressive media campaign in northern Mali, and conducted an orderly withdrawal of their forces after French troops invaded northern Mali in mid-January. Most of the groups’ top leaders and fighters escaped the French offensive.
But the jihadist groups established the Islamic State of Awazad in May 2012, four months before Wuhayshi’s letter advising them not to do so. Droukdel also criticized this decision as well as the imposition of sharia in a letter written to AQIM commanders sometime in July. In that same letter, Droukdel foreshadowed Western intervention in Mali, and noted that the region was to be used as a base for international jihad.