Cortesía de la Fundación Jamestown.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen Reorganizes under Nasir al-Wahayshi
The man most responsible for the growing strength of al-Qaeda in Yemen is a 32-year-old former secretary of Osama bin Laden named Nasir al-Wahayshi. He took over the leadership of the group when it had all but been eliminated, and has slowly, over the past two years, resurrected al-Qaeda in Yemen.
The publication of the second issue of Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles) on March 13 illustrates the degree to which al-Qaeda has reconstituted and reorganized itself in Yemen. The most recent issue of the online journal was released exactly two months after the first issue was posted on various websites and devoted blogs. But already there have been significant changes to the journal. No longer is it published by al-Qaeda in Yemen, but rather by “the al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the South of the Arabian Peninsula.”
There is also a certainty of tone and authority to the second issue that was lacking in the first. For example, the journal denied that a January interview between a local Yemeni paper and an individual claiming to be al-Qaeda in Yemen’s Information Officer was legitimate. “We say that we are the al-Qaeda organization of Jihad in the South of the Arabian Peninsula, and that the callers are ignorant of the situation and have no relationship with the organization.” All of this speaks to an increasingly centralized leadership within the group’s ranks in Yemen.
In November 2002, the organization lost its leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, in a CIA attack. A year later, al-Qaeda in Yemen seemed defunct after the capture of al-Harithi’s replacement, Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal. Coincidentally, it was at this time, when al-Qaeda in Yemen reached bottom in November 2003, that al-Wahayshi was returned to Yemen as part of an extradition agreement with Iran (al-Ghad, June 25, 2007). Concentrated efforts by the U.S. and Yemeni governments, various alternative programs, and the lure of the war in Iraq all contributed to more than two years of relative calm in Yemen. But all that changed in February 2006, when al-Wahayshi and 22 other prisoners escaped from a political security prison in San‘a (Reuters, February 15, 2006). The escape marked the beginning of the second phase in the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Along with his most trusted lieutenant, Qasim al-Raymi—also known by the kunya (honorific or war-name) of Abu Hurayrah al-San‘ani—al-Wahayshi has completely rebuilt the organization, which is much more ordered now than it was under al-Harithi in 2002. The initial process of rebuilding was slow and it is unclear whether al-Wahayshi was commanding the group’s operations before he was officially announced as al-Qaeda in Yemen’s leader in June 2007 (al-Wasat, June 27, 2007); but since then he has consolidated control of the group, and now appears to be firmly in command.
Al-Wahayshi authored a lengthy narrative detailing the prison break, which, in the absence of any official descriptions, has served as the most widely accepted version of the escape (republished by al-Ghad, June 25, 2007 and July 7, 2007). Al-Wahayshi, who is known by the kunya Abu Basir, also eulogized Abu Layth al-Libi, the al-Qaeda commander who was killed in late January in Pakistan, in the most recent issue of Sada al-Malahim. Part of this eulogy may help to explain why al-Wahayshi was selected as the group’s leader in 2007. Early in his statement he lists a series of al-Qaeda figures who have been killed including men such as Abu Hafs, Abu Abaydah, and Abu Ali al-Harithi; implicit in this is not only his duty to speak about al-Libi as the group’s commander, but also his connection to these early al-Qaeda figures through his time at bin Laden’s side in Afghanistan.
It is unclear exactly when during the 1990s al-Wahayshi left his home in the southern governorate of al-Baydah to travel to Afghanistan, where he eventually became one of bin Laden’s secretaries. But al-Wahayshi has certainly played up his personal links to bin Laden, which appear to have impressed the relatively young men who now constitute al-Qaeda in Yemen’s second generation. This personal connection to the early figures of al-Qaeda in the late 1990s seems to have acted as implicit endorsement of his qualifications as a leader. It could be said that his authority has been certified by his association with the first generation of al-Qaeda.
Following the U.S. attack on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001, al-Wahayshi escaped across the border to Iran where he was arrested. He was later extradited back to Yemen along with eight other Yemenis in November 2003. Yemen never officially brought charges against him, but he remained in prison until his escape in February 2006. The years in Iranian and Yemeni prisons seem to have hardened him. He has complained of torture in Yemeni prisons, and threatened to repay those who torture his comrades with death (al-Ghad, June 25, 2007; News Yemen, July 2, 2007). Al-Wahayshi has also accused older members of al-Qaeda of making deals with the Yemeni government. This no-holds-barred approach is a relatively new one in Yemen, where negotiation and compromise are much more common methods. The underlying philosophy that al-Wahayshi has instituted among his followers in Yemen is articulated in the most recent issue of Sada al-Malahim: “Jihad is a religious duty that God has made incumbent.” This type of reasoning leaves no room for negotiation, and this is exactly the stance that al-Qaeda in Yemen under al-Wahayshi has adopted. Under his leadership, al-Qaeda in Yemen has become more strident, better organized and more ambitious than it has ever been before.
Gregory D. Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.