Al Qaeda confirms top Yemen commander killed in US strike

Al Qaeda confirms top Yemen commander killed in US strike

Already struggling with the rise of rival militants from Daesh, Al Qaeda has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months with several commanders reported killed.

By (AFP)

Published: Tue 16 Jun 2015, 8:53 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:07 PM

This file photo shows a still frame grab taken on April 16, 2014 from a video released on March 29, 2014 by Al-Malahem Media, the media arm of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), of AQAP chief Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

Dubai — Al Qaeda confirmed that its second-in-command, head of its powerful Yemeni branch, was killed in a US drone strike, in the heaviest blow to the terrorist network since the death of Osama bin Laden.

Already struggling with the rise of rival militants from Daesh, Al Qaeda has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months with several commanders reported killed.

In a video statement, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed that Nasir Al Wuhayshi was dead.

Wuhayshi “was killed in a US drone attack that targeted him along with two other,” who were also killed, said the statement read by prominent Al Qaeda militant Khaled Omar Batarfi and dated June 15.

AQAP — which was behind several plots against Western targets including the deadly attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year — said it had named its military chief Qassem Al Rimi as its new leader.

Rimi, aged 41, was an instructor at a training camp in Afghanistan during the 1990s and his younger brother is in US custody at Guantanamo Bay.

US officials were earlier reported to have been reviewing intelligence to confirm that Wuhayshi, believed to have been in his mid-thirties, was killed in a CIA drone strike on June 9.

A local Yemeni official had told AFP that Wuhayshi was thought to have died in the raid in Al Qaeda-held Mukalla, in southeastern Yemen.

Another official said last week that a drone had fired four missiles at three Al Qaeda militants, including an unnamed “leading figure”, near Mukalla port, killing them on the spot.

The US government had offered a $10-million reward for any information leading to Wuhayshi’s capture or killing and has set a $5-million bounty for Rimi.

According to Olivier Guitta, managing director of security and risk consultancy GlobalStrat, Wuhayshi’s death is “another huge blow not only to AQAP” but also to Al Qaeda’s central command.

A former aide to bin Laden, Wuhayshi attended the group’s Al Farouk training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

He is said to have fled Afghanistan in 2002 to Iran, where he was arrested and handed over to Yemen.

He was held there without charge until he escaped by tunnelling his way out of prison with 22 others in February 2006.

A year later, Wuhayshi was named head of AQAP, which Washington considers Al Qaeda’s deadliest branch.

When Bin Laden was killed by US commandos in Pakistan in May 2011, Wuhayshi warned Washington not to fool itself that it spelt Al Qaeda’s demise.

As well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks that left 12 people dead, AQAP was also behind an attempt to blow up a US commercial airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

Washington has repeatedly targeted AQAP militants in drone strikes in Yemen and killed several commanders in recent months, including Nasser bin Ali Al Ansi, who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack.

AQAP has exploited months of fighting between loyalists of Yemen’s exiled government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels to consolidate their grip on Hadramawt province and its capital Mukalla — a city of more than 200,000.

Yemen’s warring factions were in Geneva on Tuesday for a second day of UN-sponsored talks.

But the rebel delegation said that it would not talk directly with officials from the exiled government, which the Houthis view as illegitimate.

While still a powerful and ruthless force, Al Qaeda has seen its role as the preeminent militant group challenged by the rise of Daesh, the extremist organisation that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Extremist offshoots from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have sworn allegiance to Daesh and the two groups have clashed in various countries, most notably in Syria.

Daesh claimed its first attack in Yemen on March 20 — multiple suicide bombings targeting Houthis at mosques in the capital Sanaa that killed 142 people and wounded more than 350.

A senior Al Qaeda-linked militant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was also reported killed in a US air strike in Libya this week but on Tuesday extremist group Ansar Al Sharia denied he had died.

Belmokhtar is the mastermind of a 2013 siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed.

After Wuhayshi’s and Belmokhtar’s reported deaths, “Al Qaeda Central is probably on its last legs but still able to pull off terror attacks in (the) West,” said Guitta. 

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