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Al Qaeda’s Leader in Yemen Killed in U.S. Airstrike

U.S. officials said Nasser al-Wuhayshi died in a Central Intelligence Agency drone strike

Al Qaeda said a U.S. airstrike in Yemen killed its second in command, the biggest blow to the terrorist organization since Osama bin Laden was shot dead in 2011. Photo: AP.

By Maria Abi Habib

BEIRUT—Al Qaeda’s second-in-command has been killed in Yemen, U.S. officials and the militant organization each said on Tuesday, in the biggest blow to the terrorist group since Osama bin Laden was gunned down in a 2011 U.S. commando raid in Pakistan.

The White House said on Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who also served as the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, had been killed. It didn’t say how he died or whether it was the result of a U.S. operation, but credited “the concerted efforts of our counterterrorism professionals” with thwarting his plans to attack the U.S. and West.

However, several U.S. officials said Mr. Wuhayshi was killed in a Central Intelligence Agency drone strike.

Separately, AQAP commander Khaled Batarfi announced Mr. Wuhayshi’s death, adding that two other operatives were killed in the attack. Mr. Batarfi said Qassim al-Raimi, a Yemeni citizen and long-serving AQAP military commander, would succeed Mr. Wuhayshi. A video dated on Sunday and released on Tuesday announced his death.

Mr. Batarfi’s statement didn’t say when the U.S. strike had taken place.

The White House called his death a major blow to AQAP as well as to the parent organization.

“Wuhayshi’s death removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups,” it said.

U.S. officials have called AQAP the terror group’s deadliest branch, saying it is the most capable of launching global terror strikes. They have referred to Mr. Wuhayshi as the general manager for al Qaeda globally.

Mr. Batarfi said al Qaeda would remain resilient despite Mr. Wuhayshi’s death. Over the past decade, U.S. airstrikes and raids have killed scores of al Qaeda leaders, only to see them quickly replaced.

“Did jihad end? Did its pulse stop? Did the will of resistance and fighting die among Muslims?” he said. “No, the death of this [leader] leads to more determination.”

Mr. Batarfi was among 300 men freed from prison in the Yemeni city of Mukalla in April when AQAP militants stormed the important eastern seaport, which remains under the group’s control. Al Qaeda commonly uses prison breaks to free its operatives and recruit from among other detainees.

QAP was behind the January siege of a French satirical magazine in Paris. Under Mr. Wuhayshi’s leadership, AQAP has plotted strikes against U.S. and Western airliners by terrorists concealing explosives in their shoes and underwear. The group also claimed responsibility for the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, where a U.S. Army officer opened fire at a military base in Texas, killing 13.

The U.S. government had offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Mr. Wuhayshi’s death.

A 2013 plot to attack U.S. interests abroad, apparently orchestrated by Mr. Wuhayshi, prompted the U.S. government to close 19 diplomatic posts world-wide. The U.S. response came after American intelligence officers intercepted a phone call between Mr. Wuhayshi and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which the men discussed the attacks.

Mr. Wuhayshi’s death would be a welcome development for U.S. national security, but likely wouldn’t be a mortal blow to AQAP, said Bruce Riedel, who spent 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and advised four presidents on national security.

“Decapitation has never defeated al Qaeda,” said Mr. Riedel. “Given the chaos in Yemen, today AQAP is stronger than ever, even without Wuhayshi.”

Talks between Yemen’s warring parties hit a potential roadblock on Tuesday after Houthi rebels said they wouldn’t negotiate with the exiled government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in United Nations-backed talks in Geneva, a Houthi spokesman said.

In 2013, al Qaeda leader Mr. Zawahiri is believed to have elevated Mr. Wuhayshi to the position of general manager, which some U.S. officials said they believed made him second-in-command of the entire al Qaeda organization.
BN-IY026_aqap06_M_20150616025527Nasser al-Wuhayshi appears in a video released in 2014 by AQAP’s media arm. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


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