Has al Qaeda’s link with Yemen been severed?

Members of al Qaeda in Yemen announce the merger with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Center-left is Abu Hareth Muhammad al Awfi; far right is Said Ali al Shihri. Image courtesy of Nick Grace.

If you just read the headline to this CBS News article, titled “Al Qaeda’s Yemen Connection May Be Dead,” on the death of Saleh al Somali, al Qaeda’s external operations chief, you’d believe al Qaeda has now been cut off from its network in Yemen. Those who follow al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula know that the organization is perhaps one of al Qaeda’s strongest branches, and has some of al Qaeda’s seniormost leaders.

Sheik Abdulmajid al Zindani, who is designated as a terrorist financier by the UN’s 1267 committee and as a spiritual adviser to bin Laden by the US Treasury, remains active in Yemen, and is a close ally to the Yemeni government. Nasir al Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is a top al Qaeda commander. In fact, a trusted intelligence source tells me that if al Qaeda’s central leadership is decapitated in Pakistan, Wuhayshi is considered most likely to take command of the global terror network. Former Guantánamo inmate Said Ali al Shihri, the deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is another of al Qaeda’s top leaders. Nasser al Bahri (Abu Jandal) served as Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and is considered linked into the central leadership. The list goes on.

The article fortunately provides a little more context than the misleading headline. What we do learn is that Saleh al Somali is responsible for helping al Qaeda develop its networks in Somalia and Yemen, and al Qaeda in Central Asia is increasingly employing Central Asian leaders.

“Since the summer of 2008, I believe he was involved with planning to shift some of al Qaeda’s Arab fighters to Yemen” – the conservative state in the Arabian peninsula alongside Saudi Arabia’s southern border, where al Qaeda has pushed an increasingly violent insurgency in the past year.

The diplomat said that between one-quarter to one-third of al Qaeda’s units in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are now led by non-Arabs, in a transition from “100 percent of these units which were once led by Arabs.”

He said militants from the central Asian former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan were now either “holding permanent or temporary charge of these units,” as some of al Qaeda’s most hardened fighters head out of the region for Yemen, which he described as “their new frontier.”

The shift of Arab al Qaeda leaders from Pakistan is often characterized as evidence of the Pakistani Army operations against the network. The leaders are fleeing to safer grounds, the mantra goes.

But what I believe this really represents is al Qaeda’s integration of Pakistan’s jihadi groups into the network, and the distribution of Arab and African commanders back to theaters where they can be more effective. The rise in prominence of al Qaeda leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, Matiur Rehman, Rashid Rauf, Qari Mohammad Zafar, and others represents a dangerous trend, and isn’t something that should be celebrated.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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