A video of a large al Qaeda gathering in Yemen has raised eyebrows in the press. Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as general manager of al Qaeda’s global network, can be heard saying to a crowd of more than 100: "We must eliminate the cross. ... The bearer of the cross is America!"
CNN’s Barbara Starr first reported on the brazen meeting, pointing out that “the CIA and the Pentagon either didn't know about it or couldn't get a drone there in time to strike.” When Obama administration officials and some within the U.S. intelligence community speak about al Qaeda its sounds like the group’s senior leaders are cowering in fear somewhere, waiting for the next missile to strike. They are not supposed to be openly hosting a large anti-American rally.
And then there is how American officials speak about AQAP and Wuhayshi. They are supposedly “affiliates” of al Qaeda, distinct from al Qaeda’s “core” in South Asia. But this is simply not true. Wuhayshi is as “core” as they come.
Wuhayshi was Osama bin Laden’s protégé. The first head of al Qaeda handpicked Wuhayshi to serve as his aide-de-camp out of a group of Yemenis who had traveled to Afghanistan to serve as bodyguards. Bin Laden saw Wuhayshi’s potential and decided to groom him to be something more than muscle. The diminutive, but brilliant, Wuhayshi faithfully served at bin Laden’s side through the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001. He eventually fled to Iran, where he was detained for a time, before being shipped off to his native Yemen. There, in 2006, he took part in a prison escape that freed up al Qaeda “core” talent to do the organization’s bidding in bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.
Al Qaeda’s goal has always been to launch insurgencies in Muslim countries it thinks are ripe for a jihadist takeover. Saudi Arabia and Yemen have been high on al Qaeda’s list in this regard. But a fierce counterterrorism campaign begun by the Saudis in 2003 quashed al Qaeda’s post-9/11 push inside the kingdom. Some al Qaeda leaders fled to Yemen, but it was Wuhayshi’s newfound freedom, alongside other prison escapees and Guantanamo returnees that really rejuvenated al Qaeda’s leadership in Arabia.
It was Ayman al Zawahiri, then Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, who first publicly recognized Wuhayshi as al Qaeda’s leader in the Arabian Peninsula. In early 2009, Wuhayshi relaunched AQAP, swearing allegiance to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in the process. And, in the summer of 2013, Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi to the position of al Qaeda’s general manager. Wuhayshi’s appointment coincided with a large-scale terrorist threat. This was detected when U.S. intelligence officials learned that Zawahiri had hosted an internet-based communication with more than 20 of his subordinates, including Wuhayshi. More than 20 U.S. diplomatic facilities were shuttered in early August 2013 as a result.
Al Qaeda’s general manager serves a “core” function, which was previously filled by terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The position gives Wuhayshi broad power within al Qaeda’s network far outside of Yemen. Even before Wuhayshi’s official appointment AQAP was busy expanding its geographic footprint.
For instance, AQAP helped Muhammad Jamal, a longtime subordinate to Zawahiri, establish his own al Qaeda network after his release from an Egyptian prison in 2011. Jamal has since been re-imprisoned, but his organization (dubbed the Muhammad Jamal Network, or MJN, by Western intelligence authorities) continues to operate in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
AQAP built its own training camps in post-Qaddafi Libya. As documented in a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, the CIA reported in 2012 that AQAP, MJN and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) “have conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.” That same Senate Intelligence Committee report found that terrorists “affiliated” with each of these groups “participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks.” CNN previously reported that Yemenis from AQAP had been involved in the Benghazi attack.
But the Benghazi attack, the meeting in Yemen, and just about everything else done by al Qaeda outside of South Asia is supposed to be work of “affiliates,” or “local” jihadists -- not al Qaeda’s “core.” The facts show otherwise, that al Qaeda maintains an international terrorist network. And al Qaeda’s leaders are not tied to any one geographic location.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.