Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Image from the SITE Intel Group.
Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has recently been appointed to also serve as al Qaeda’s general manager, an important position that has been held by some of the group’s top leaders. The appointment of al Wuhayshi as general manager discredits the widespread claim that al Qaeda’s “core” is based solely in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
Al Wuhayshi “had recently been appointed into the role by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri,” CNN reported. Al Wuhayshi’s title was disclosed by RAND’s Seth Jones as news of an al Qaeda plot broke over the weekend. That plot has led the US to close more than 20 diplomatic facilities in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Al Wuhayshi is thought to be at the center of the latest al Qaeda plot. The US has intercepted communications between Zawahiri and al Wuhayshi in which the al Qaeda emir orders his general manager to execute an attack, McClatchy reported.
Al Wuhayshi served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp from the late 1990s until after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and was with the al Qaeda master at the battle of Tora Bora. Al Wuhayshi fled to Iran, where he was eventually detained and deported to Yemen in 2003. Bin Laden’s protégé escaped from prison in 2006 along with other jihadists who rebuilt al Qaeda’s presence inside Yemen.
After his escape from prison, al Wuhayshi quickly established himself as al Qaeda’s top man in Yemen. In November 2008, Ayman al Zawahiri publicly recognized him as al Qaeda’s emir in Yemen. A few months later, in January 2009, al Wuhayshi announced that he was now the leader of AQAP, an al Qaeda affiliate that orchestrates the organizations’s activities in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen and quickly began targeting the West.
Al Wuhayshi has now succeeded some of al Qaeda’s top operatives as general manager of the global network. Other al Qaeda leaders known to have served as general manager since 9/11 include: Abu Faraj al Libi (from 2001 until his capture in Mardan, Pakistan in May 2005); Mustafa Abu al Yazid, a.k.a. Sheikh Saeed (from 2005 until his death in a US drone strike in May 2010); Atiyah Abd al Rahman (from 2010 until his death in a US drone strike in August 2011); and Abu Yahya al Libi (from 2011 until his death in a drone strike in June 2012).
The al Qaeda general manager’s duties
Osama bin Laden outlined the makeup and responsibilities of al Qaeda’s general manager in two letters to Atiyah Abd al Rahman that were written in 2010. The letters were two among thousands of documents recovered by US special operations forces during the raid to kill bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
In the Oct. 21, 2010 letter, bin Laden disclosed that the office of the general manager includes a “deputy” and two “second deputies.” Bin Laden appointed Abu Yahya al Libi as Atiyah’s deputy, and “Brother ‘Abd-al-Rahman” and ‘Abd-al-Jalil as second deputies. The appointments were for one year, and the leaders could retain their positions after their performance is evaluated. Additionally, a “military commander, and four or five other brothers” were to serve on the general manager’s staff.
In a separate letter written to Atiyah sometime after May 2010, bin Laden appointed him general manager for a term of two years and outlined some of his duties, which included coordinating military and media activities, and communicating with al Qaeda’s “regions,” or affiliates, as well as allies such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
In that same letter, bin Laden addressed the Western perception that al Qaeda has a core based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and said the term “Central al Qaeda” is one that “was coined in the media.”
“Consultation among brothers in any region will take place internally, though they will also consult with ‘Central al Qaeda,'” bin Laden said to Atiyah. “This term was coined in the media to distinguish between al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and al Qaeda in the other territories. In my opinion, there is no problem with using this term in principle in order to clarify the intended meaning.”
Bin Laden went on to clarify how the affiliates nominate their leaders, in coordination with al Qaeda’s central leadership.
“The term of an Emir chosen by the influential people in each territory, in consultation with the central group, shall be two years, with the potential to be renewed,” bin Laden wrote. “If there is delay in consulting with the central group due to a difficulty in communications, the term shall be one year, also with the potential to be renewed.”
Bin Laden also detailed al Qaeda’s mechanism for holding these territorial emirs accountable. “The Shura council in each territory will provide the Emir with recommendations and will write an annual report to be sent to the central group detailing the local situation, to include the progress of the local Emir in his activity and his dealings with the Mujahidin,” bin Laden explained.
This same bureaucratic mechanism for appointing and evaluating the affiliates’ leadership was referenced by Ayman al Zawahiri in a letter to al Qaeda’s emirs in Syria and Iraq that was written in late May. The heads of the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq had a public dispute over who controlled al Qaeda’s growing army inside Syria in early April. This forced Zawahiri to weigh in. Bin Laden’s successor said both men can continue in their role as emir of their respective groups for one year, but they must each then “submit a report to the general command of [al Qaeda] about the progress of work.” At that time, the “general command” will decide “whether to extend” their mandates.
In his letter to Atiyah, bin Laden also said that the decision to appoint a first or second deputy of any al Qaeda affiliate “should be done in consultation with the central group” and if “there is a problem with communications, then the matter will be temporary until consultation can be completed.”
Overseeing and supporting the work of al Qaeda leaders tasked with attacking the West is within the general manager’s purview, according to bin Laden’s letter to Atiya.
Bin Laden told Atiyah to “nominate a brother to be responsible for the general duty of the external work [attacks abroad] in all of the regions.” But if this is not possible, Atiyah should “take over that responsibility” himself.
Bin Laden identified Yunis al Mauritani , who was subsequently captured in Pakistan in 2011 and reportedly deported to his home country earlier this year, as the “official responsible for external work in Africa and west Asia.” Al Mauritani is known to have coordinated al Qaeda’s plots in the West prior to his capture.
Bin Laden asked Atiyah to “send two messages – one to Brother Abu Musab Abdul Wadud [the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and the other to Brother Abu Basir Nasir al Wuhayshi – and ask them to put forward their best in cooperating with Shaykh Yunis in whatever he asks of them.” Atiyah should “hint” to Abdul Wadud that AQIM provide Yunis “with the financial support” he “might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.”
The general manager’s responsibilities, as outlined by bin Laden, were such that any work by the “brothers in Yemen … outside the peninsula … even within the territorial waters of the peninsula, is to be considered external work that requires coordination with” Atiyah’s office. Bin Laden warned “the brothers in all the regions” of the “dangers of neglecting” this coordination with al Qaeda’s general manager.
According to bin Laden’s letter, al Qaeda’s general manager was also tasked with “earmarking of the budget,” providing detailed reports on the al Qaeda affiliates’ leaders, attempting to unify the jihadi factions in Iraq, and disseminating bin Laden’s advice to the regional emirs (including the necessity of using two suicide operatives in an attack, with one bolstering the spirits of the other).
Atiyah was told to oversee Ilyas Kashmiri’s work in Pakistan and Afghanistan with respect to targeting top US officials, including President Obama and General Petraeus. Kashmiri was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in June 2011.
Bin Laden said Atiyah should coordinate the “external work” (i.e., targeting the West) of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, while also sending recruits with “toughness and discipline” to “the front with the Taliban.” And Atiyah was charged with recommending trusted personnel capable of accompanying bin Laden.
How al Wuhayshi’s portfolio will compare to Atiyah’s is not known. But bin Laden’s letters provide a useful overview of the role assumed by al Qaeda’s new general manager.
Al Wuhayshi is especially well-positioned to coordinate the activities of al Qaeda’s robust affiliates in the heart of the Middle East and Africa. And given AQAP’s plotting against the US homeland, al Wuhayshi is an ideal candidate to make sure that the regional affiliates continue to devote some of their assets to targeting the West — just as bin Laden specified in his letter to Atiyah.