A video released by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in late March has garnered renewed attention in the media. The video, entitled “The First of the Heavy Rain,” features two AQAP leaders, as well as lower-level fighters who escaped from a Yemeni prison in February 2014.
Nasir al Wuhayshi, who is both the emir of AQAP and al Qaeda’s overall general manager, is shown speaking to a gathering of more than 100 people. “O brothers, the Crusader enemy is still shuffling his papers, so we must remember that we are always fighting the biggest enemy, the leaders of disbelief, and we have to overthrow those leaders, we have to remove the Cross, and the carrier of the Cross is America,” Wuhayshi says, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Ibrahim al Rubaish, a Saudi who was once held at Guantanamo and now serves as a top sharia official in AQAP, is also shown speaking in the video. Rubaish praises the newfound freedom of some jihadist fighters, including those shown in the video, but he laments the fact that others remain imprisoned in Guantanamo and elsewhere.
The video has sparked the media’s interest because it is a brazen display of AQAP strength inside Yemen. Wuhayshi is a hunted man and he is presumably on America’s list of potential targets for drone strikes. Yet, he felt comfortable enough in his home country to lead a large, public gathering of his followers.
“Core” al Qaeda in Yemen
Wuhayshi served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp and protégé in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. He fled to Iran, where he was detained, sometime after the Battle of Tora Bora. Wuhayshi was eventually transferred to Yemeni custody, but he escaped from prison in 2006.
Al Qaeda has long sought to wage insurgencies in Muslim countries it considers ripe for a jihadist takeover. Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been high on al Qaeda’s list of target countries. However, a fierce counterterrorism campaign in Saudi Arabia that began in 2003 quashed al Qaeda’s early efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Qaeda also struggled, at first, to establish a full-scale insurgency in Yemen. But prison escapees such as Wuhayshi and Guantanamo returnees such as Rubaish have replenished al Qaeda’s leadership in the Arabian Peninsula and contributed to al Qaeda’s resurgence.
In early 2009, Wuhayshi and other jihadists announced the rebirth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, swearing allegiance to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the process. Ayman al Zawahiri had previously recognized Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s top man in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the summer of 2013, Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi to the position of al Qaeda’s general manager. Wuhayshi’s appointment to the role of general manager was accompanied by a large-scale threat that forced the closing of American diplomatic facilities around the world. The US learned of this threat when intelligence officials captured video of Zawahiri communicating, via a complex Internet-based system, with more than 20 of his subordinates, including Wuhayshi.
Al Qaeda’s general manager serves a “core” function within the group. The role was previously held by senior terrorists in South Asia. According to declassified documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s compound, the duties performed by al Qaeda’s general manager include coordinating military and media activities, and communicating with al Qaeda’s “regions,” or branches, as well as with allies such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. [For a more complete discussion of the general manager’s role, see LWJ report, AQAP’s emir also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.]
In another recent video, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, explains that al Qaeda also has a leader who oversees the organization’s efforts in various geographic locations, or regions. The Al Nusrah Front is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
Al Qaeda “draws up its plans and its strategy based on what we call al Qalim, or locations,” Sulayman says in the video. And a leader, who swears bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Ayman al Zawahiri, is chosen to oversee each of these locations. In addition, Sulayman explains, al Qaeda appoints another leader who “overlooks all of these different locations,” and this position is called Masul al Qalim. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front official explains al Qaeda’s strategy, conflict with former branch.]
This leadership role described by Sulayman is filled by someone other than al Qaeda’s general manager, according to US intelligence officials. Both the general manager and the Masul al Qalim have deputies on their staff to support their work.
Such roles, and what they say about how al Qaeda is actually organized, are generally not reflected in the public discourse. It is commonly argued that there is a “core” of al Qaeda in South Asia and this entity is distinct from al Qaeda branches elsewhere. But Wuhayshi serves as one of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders from Yemen. And his role is part of the same leadership structure that includes Zawahiri, other deputies, and various supporting councils. These leaders are located not just in South Asia, but also elsewhere.
Influence across al Qaeda’s international network
Wuhayshi’s influence across the al Qaeda network can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. According to “WikiBaghdady,” who maintains a Twitter feed and is thought to be a dissenting leader within the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), Wuhayshi was consulted on the infighting between ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. Wuhayshi reportedly ruled against the emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, when he asked to be named the new ruler of the Caliphate. (In reality, the Caliphate was dissolved in 1924 and although jihadists are fighting to re-establish it, no such entity exists today.)
Wuhayshi also advised al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another branch of al Qaeda, to take a more incremental, “hearts and minds” approach to implementing sharia law in the areas under AQIM’s control. While at first AQIM did not abide by this advice, the group has released literature in recent months advocating the same approach described by Wuhayshi.
Under Wuhayshi’s command, AQAP has assisted Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria. The group also helped build the Muhammad Jamal Network, which was founded by a longtime subordinate to Ayman al Zawahiri. Jamal noted in his letters to Zawahiri that he received financing and other support from AQAP, which also helped funnel fighters to Jamal’s camps in Egypt and Libya.
AQAP has expanded its own footprint far beyond Yemen’s borders. In January, a bipartisan report published by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted that AQAP and other branches of al Qaeda “have conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.”
While Wuhayshi is well known for his role as an al Qaeda leader inside Yemen, his “core” al Qaeda role gives him influence across the international terror network.