Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a regional branch of al Qaeda’s global network, has confirmed that a top official named Nasser bin Ali al Ansi was killed in a US drone strike in April.
Another AQAP official, Khalid Saeed Batarfi, honored al Ansi as a “martyr” in an 11 minute, 40 second video produced by the group’s media arm and released via Twitter. Batarfi was freed from a Yemeni prison when AQAP overran the southern city of Al Mukalla in early April.
The Long War Journal previously reported that al Ansi was not only a senior AQAP official, but also served as one of al Qaeda’s global deputy general managers, giving him responsibilities far outside of Yemen. This identification was based, in large part, on declassified documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s Files: Al Qaeda’s deputy general manager in Yemen.]
Batarfi’s eulogy for Al Ansi confirms that he served directly under al Qaeda’s upper echelon throughout his lengthy career. According to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, Batarfi said that Al Ansi was one of Osama bin Laden’s “special ones.” Al Ansi “took courage and wisdom from” bin Laden, “as well as the jurisprudence of jihad, movement, and the call.”
Al Ansi “drank from the knowledge of the top leaders such as” al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and deceased leaders such as Sheikh Abu Hafs al Masri (the group’s military chief until he was killed in 2001) and Sheikh Mustafa Abu al Yazid (who served as al Qaeda’s general manager until his death in 2010). Al Ansi also learned from al Qaeda leaders such as Saif al Adl, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Masri, and Sheikh Abu al Kheir, as well as “others from the first generation and those of precedence from the founders of contemporary jihad,” Batari explains, according to SITE’s translation.
Al Ansi had taken on a more prominent role for al Qaeda over the past few years. The international organization viewed him as a key ideologue who had been trained in al Qaeda’s version of sharia law. Al Ansi’s military career as a jihadist also spanned the globe, from Central and South Asia all the way to the Philippines, where he was tasked with a mission by Osama bin Laden around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
On a number of occasions, al Ansi discussed aspects of al Qaeda’s inner workings. During one interview staged by AQAP in January, for instance, al Ansi was asked about the files captured during the raid on bin Laden’s compound in 2011. Al Ansi said the files were “true,” but “not all the documents were revealed” by the US government.
“We must take into consideration that some of these documents were merely discussions on a number of issues. The Americans did not reveal the letters completely,” al Ansi said. Al Ansi then added that all Muslims should study the bin Laden files because they “incorporate important guidelines on political, sharia, methodical, [and] media aspects” of waging jihad.
Only an al Qaeda veteran with deep knowledge of the group’s operations would discuss bin Laden’s files in such a way.
Al Ansi was best known for some of his high-profile announcements. In January, for example, he claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris on behalf of the organization. Al Ansi said the operation was carried out in “compliance” with the “command” of Allah to support his messenger, as well as the “order of our general emir, the generous Sheikh Ayman bin Muhammad al Zawahiri,” and the “will” of Sheikh Osama bin Laden.
While greatly expanding its footprint in Yemen, AQAP has sustained significant leadership losses this year. In addition to al Ansi, the organization lost Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari to a drone strike in January and Ibrahim Rubaish, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, to an American airstrike in April.
This trio — al Ansi, al Nadhari, and Rubaish — formed the ideological backbone of AQAP’s propaganda operations. The Long War Journal assesses that al Nadhari, like al Ansi, was also a deputy general manager of al Qaeda’s global network. Both al Ansi and al Nadhari worked underneath Nasir al Wuhayshi, a protégé of Osama bin Laden who serves as both AQAP’s emir and al Qaeda’s general manager.
As the biographies of these jihadists demonstrate, al Qaeda’s “core” leadership is not just located in South Asia, but has been dispatched to lead the organization’s efforts in various jihadist hotspots.
The three AQAP ideologues killed this year were key players in al Qaeda’s attempts to counter the Islamic State’s messaging. Al Ansi and al Nadhari, in particular, attempted to undermine the ideological justifications for the Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate.” Al Ansi tried to use the US-led airstrikes in Syria last year as a pretext for forging an alliance between the rival jihadist groups. But when that failed, he and other al Qaeda ideologues mounted a direct verbal assault on the Islamic State.
In March, al Ansi denounced the first major attack committed by the Islamic State’s followers in Yemen. After the Islamic State’s branch attacked Houthi mosques, al Ansi released a message denouncing the attacks. Al Ansi explained that the suicide bombings were inconsistent with the guidelines for waging jihad issued by Ayman al Zawahiri, who ordered his minions to avoid “targeting mosques, markets, and public places out of concern for the lives of innocent Muslims, and to prioritize the paramount interests.” The guidelines are part of al Qaeda’s effort to avoid unpopular civilian casualties in the Muslim-majority world.
The deaths of al Ansi, al Nadhari and Rubaish are significant blows to al Qaeda’s international network. But the killings of senior AQAP leaders have not stopped the group from seizing and holding significant parts of Yemen this year. High-value targeting has not been enough to stop the growth of AQAP’s insurgency.
And al Qaeda has found replacements for its slain leaders in the past. As Osama bin Laden’s documents show, the jihadist group began grooming new leaders, like al Ansi, years ago.