Al Qaeda’s Ye­men chief be­lieved dead

U.S. of­fi­cials are work­ing to con­firm a drone strike killed the elu­sive, pow­er­ful boss.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Brian Ben­nett brian.ben­nett@latimes.com

WASHINGTON — U.S. author­i­ties be­lieve a drone strike has killed the leader of Al Qaeda’s feared af­fil­i­ate in Ye­men, a group that has re­peat­edly sought to launch am­bi­tious at­tacks on or over Amer­i­can soil, a U.S. counter-ter­ror­ism of­fi­cial said Mon­day. Naser Ab­del-Karim Wahishi evaded U.S. drones and counter-ter­ror­ism raids in Ye­men for years while lead­ing what many an­a­lysts con­sider to be the ter­ror­ist net­work’s most dan­ger­ous and ac­tive chap­ter, Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula. Un­der Wahishi’s lead­er­ship, AQAP, as the group is known, re­peat­edly at­tempted to smug­gle so­phis­ti­cated bombs onto pas­sen­ger jets and cargo planes headed for the United States. The group spe­cial­ized in bombs de­signed to be hid­den in body crevices or smug­gled through air­port se­cu­rity. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials have been work­ing to ver­ify re­ports from Ye­men that Wahishi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the south­ern port city of Mukalla on Fri­day. There is “no rea­son to doubt that claim,” the counter-ter­ror­ism of­fi­cial said. If con­firmed, Wahishi’s death would be a ma­jor vic­tory for the United States. Wahishi, one of the world’s most-wanted mil­i­tants, was a close ally of Al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden. Af­ter Bin Laden was killed in Pak­istan in 2011, his suc­ces­sor, Ay­man Zawahiri, named Wahishi as his deputy, and U.S. of­fi­cials con­sid­ered him a ma­jor con­tender to lead Al Qaeda some­day. Re­ports of his death came a day af­ter U.S. war­planes launched an airstrike in eastern Libya that tar­geted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Al Qaeda-linked mil­i­tant who pi­o­neered lu­cra­tive kid­nap-for-ran­som schemes in North Africa and who led a brazen 2013 at­tack on an Al­ge­rian gas plant that left 38 for­eign hostages dead. The strikes against two elu­sive and pow­er­ful Al Qaeda lead­ers in a mat­ter of days sig­nal an in­creas­ing tempo of U.S. counter-ter­ror­ism oper­a­tions against groups that have specif­i­cally tar­geted Amer­i­cans. They come as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to push back Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Syria and Iraq have stalled, and as U.S. counter-ter­ror­ism oper­a­tions in Ye­men were se­verely hob­bled af­ter the U.S.-backed gov­ern­ment was ousted by lo­cal Shi­ite Mus­lim fight­ers called Houthis. The Houthis also op­pose AQAP, but it’s un­clear whether they pro­vided any of the in­tel­li­gence that led to Fri­day’s drone strike. Wahishi turned AQAP into the “most ag­gres­sive of Al Qaeda af­fil­i­ates try­ing to tar­get the U.S., and do­ing it in ways that were fairly in­ge­nious,” said Seth Jones, a for­mer U.S. counter-ter­ror­ism of­fi­cial now with the Rand Corp think tank. With Wahishi’s death and the rise of Is­lamic State as a ri­val, “Al Qaeda is in rough shape,” Jones said. But he said Al Qaeda has proved to be re­silient. “Time and time again, the death of a se­nior leader does not de­stroy the group,” Jones said. In re­cent months, AQAP has ex­ploited the in­sta­bil­ity in Ye­men’s multi-sided civil war to take con­trol of ter­ri­tory. U.S. drone strikes and com­mando raids had forced the group into the shad­ows, but fight­ers loyal to Wahishi seized a re­gional air­port and a coastal oil ter­mi­nal in April be­fore tak­ing con­trol of Mukalla, the port on the Ara­bian Sea where hewas killed. Wahishi, who was born in Ye­men, quickly ex­panded the Al Qaeda op­er­a­tion af­ter he es­caped from a Ye­meni prison in Fe­bru­ary 2006 along with 22other Al Qaeda op­er­a­tives. U.S. of­fi­cials said Wahishi was re­spon­si­ble for ap­prov­ing AQAP tar­gets, re­cruit­ing mem­bers, al­lo­cat­ing fi­nan­cial re­sources and di­rect­ing op­er­a­tives to hit spe­cific tar­gets. In 2008, Wahishi helped or­ga­nize small-arms at­tacks on for­eign tourists and a se­ries of mor­tar at­tacks against diplo­matic mis­sions in Sana, Ye­men’s cap­i­tal. That Septem­ber, he helped plan an at­tack that det­o­nated two ve­hi­cles laden with ex­plo­sives out­side the U.S. Em­bassy, killing 19 peo­ple. The U.S. State Depart­ment of­fered a $10-mil­lion bounty for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to his lo­ca­tion. Of­fi­cials said AQAP’s pri­mary bomb maker, Ibrahim Asiri, re­mains at large. A Saudi na­tional, Asiri has been work­ing for years to cre­ate a non­metal­lic ex­plo­sive that can evade air­port se­cu­rity and blow up a jet­liner. A bomb he de­signed was used in an at­tempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jet­liner on Christ­mas Day 2009. The bomb, hid­den in a re­cruit’s un­der­wear, passed un­de­tected through air­port se­cu­rity but failed to det­o­nate. That plot spurred the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­vamp air­port se­cu­rity, adding body scan­ners and pat­downs to pas­sen­ger screen­ing.

IntelCenter

THE GROUP led by Naser Ab­del-Karim Wahishi re­peat­edly tried to bomb U.S.-bound jets.

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