By Joana Cook:
News broke this morning of the death of Nassir al-Wahaishi, the second in command of al-Qaeda, and the leader of its strongest affiliate group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP). Wahaishi was reportedly killed in a drone strike, said to have taken place in the port city of Mukallah, Yemen. While this strike is certainly significant, especially in its symbolic value, it is unlikely to quell the threat AQAP poses as long as a political solution in the country remains out of reach.
Officially formed in January 2009 from Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda, AQAP is often cited as the most lethal branch of the organization, largely due to the bomb-making skills of Ibrahim al-Asiri. Al-Asiri has been the key figure from AQAP linked with the many threats that have emanated from the country in recent years. These have included the 2009 underwear bomber who attempted to detonate a device on a commercial liner over Detroit on Christmas Day, as well as the 2010 cargo plane plot which saw explosives hidden in US-bound printers. Most recently, AQAP had claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
The death of Wahaishi follows on from other significant blows for the organization in recent years, such as the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born English-speaking cleric who was killed in a drone strike in September 2011. Even post-mortem, Awlaki has continued to be one of the most influential figures in encouraging Westerners to travel abroad and engage in violence – through recordings of his speeches and his writing – and is cited by many traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight today. Drone strikes have also consistently cut down AQAP leaders like regional leader in the Baitha province Qaed al-Thahab in August 2013, and more recently this year Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi, who announced the Charlie Hebdo attack.
However, such deaths have not reduced the strength of the organization, which has only continued to grow in capacity and membership. AQAP has proven its ability to thrive in Yemen, where the central government has been unable to provide basic governance and accountability to its citizens.
In 2011, now ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh recalled troops from areas such as Jaar and Zinjibar to secure his position in the capital against peaceful protestors when his position came under threat during the Arab Spring. The removal of government forces in this period left a power vacuum that AQAP filled, quickly installing their own version of law and order when the government proved unable to do so.
AQAP was able to hold these positions for just over a year, allowing it plenty of space to regroup and strengthen. In March 2015, the failing security situation in the country left an open opportunity for AQAP to seize a significant foothold in the important port city of Mukallah, in Hadhramaut province. Here, they released over 300 prisoners from the city’s central prison, including other important members of AQAP such as Khalid Bartafi. The advance into Mukallah was another case of the organization capitalizing on the unrest in the country, and the additional strength it has been able to gain in such situations.
Drone and air strikes targeted at the organization, which are often used as band-aid solutions, have also severely impacted local populations. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, hundreds of civilians have been caught up in these strikes and killed, often perpetuating a cycle of resentment for the government and its partners, and driving further recruitment for AQAP.
AQAP has been shown to thrive in periods when the reach of the central government has been restricted, and in periods when discontent with the government has risen. What’s more, local recruitment has not always been premised on individuals who aspire to attack the West, but is often driven by grievances against the government; AQAP has been seen to step in at times of vulnerability and provide services, law and order, and accountability for victims and frustrated parties that the central government has been unable to provide.
While the death of al-Wahaishi will certainly provide some short-term interruption for the organization, they have already named Qassim al-Rimi as the group’s new leader. However, like the many strikes before it, Wahaishi’s death will not provide a lasting solution to depleting AQAP in the country. To ensure lasting stability in Yemen, current initiatives like those in Geneva that have brought the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels to the table, are the primary hope for peace and stability in the country.
The country’s population is increasingly suffering from a desperate humanitarian situation that has left upwards of 80% of the population reliant on humanitarian aid. Tens of thousands have been internally displaced, while fighting and air strikes continue across the country, overshadowing the great hope that the National Dialogue Conference once presented to the country.
To challenge groups like AQAP in Yemen, and ensure others such as ISIL do not also try and gain a foothold in the country, only national peace and unity in the form of an inclusive, political solution will provide the necessary remedy.
Joana Cook is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of War Studies. She is also the current Editor-in-Chief of Strife and a Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS). Her work more broadly focuses on women in violent extremism, countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism practices in Yemen, Canada and the UK. Her PhD thesis specifically examines the role and agency of women in security practices in Yemen. She has been featured on BBC World News and in the Telegraph, the Washington Post and Radio Free Europe, amongst others. You can follow her on Twitter @Joana_Cook.