By Scott Stewart
"Killing ideologies is harder than killing people." Last week I made this statement when I was writing about how the al Qaeda form — or brand — of jihadism should not be written off as dead. It is quite possible that the al Qaeda brand of jihadism could even outlast that of its competitor for jihadist hearts and minds: the Islamic State.
The following points are among the several I made to support this argument: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been able to gain considerable strength in Yemen's current chaos, and high-profile Sahel-based jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar recently denied that he had sworn loyalty to the Islamic State.
However, these particular considerations seemed to dissolve this week when Libyan government officials announced that Belmokhtar had been killed by a U.S. airstrike June 14 and when Yemeni sources noted that the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahayshi, had been killed by a U.S. airstrike June 9.
The death of Belmokhtar has not been confirmed. Jihadists associated with the Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia, which was reportedly involved in the attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi in 2012, provided a list of those killed in the airstrike in Libya that did not include Belmokhtar. It appears that Belmokhtar may once again have escaped an attack that was reported to have taken his life.
Conversely, AQAP's al-Malahim Media released a video June 16 announcing al-Wahayshi's death and his replacement, Qasim al-Raymi, one of the group's founding leaders and the chief of its military operations. The video featured Khalid Bartafi, a senior jihadist leader who was one of some 300 hundred jihadists rescued from prison when AQAP conquered the eastern Yemeni city of Mukalla on April 2.
As we have noted before, al-Wahayshi was an exceptional individual and an effective jihadist leader. However, the claims by some commentators that his death signifies the end of the global al Qaeda movement, or of AQAP, are vastly overstated. As demonstrated by the quick and orderly transfer of command, the organization that al-Wahayshi built is strong and has a deep roster of experienced jihadists.
The Death of a Prominent Jihadist Leader
Certainly, al-Wahayshi was an important jihadist figure. After his 2006 escape from prison, he was able to forge a united group out of the fractious jihadist landscape in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. His united group then grew and gained operational momentum until it assumed a leading position on both the physical jihadist battlefield and the ideological battlefield.
Following the Islamic State's defection from the al Qaeda orbit and the establishment of an alternative ideological pole in the jihadist universe, al-Wahayshi and his group became an important counterweight to help slow the exodus of jihadists leaving al Qaeda for the Islamic State. AQAP reaffirmed al Qaeda's philosophy of jihad and the importance on focusing jihadist efforts on the far enemy — the United States and its European allies.
Because of this, it will be hard to replace al-Wahayshi. At the same time, the jihadist movement has weathered the loss of a number of influential individuals, from the assassination of Abdullah Azzam to the arrests of the Blind Sheikh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the deaths of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and Osama bin Laden. Yet despite these losses, the ideology of jihadism has continued to flourish: New members have been recruited to the ideology and new leaders have stepped in to fill the voids left by their dead or imprisoned leaders. Jihadists today control far more territory than they did at the time of bin Laden's death in May 2011.
Creating a Robust Organization
As with the wider jihadist movement, AQAP has experienced a great deal of military and intelligence pressure — and loss — since its formation. Within the first month of its creation, one of the group's four founding leaders, Mohammed al-Awfi, surrendered to Saudi authorities. Of the group's four founding leaders, which included al Wahayshi, al-Raymi, and Said al-Shihri, al-Raymi is the only one still with the group. Al-Shihri was killed by an U.S. drone strike in July 2013.
But the strength and resilience of the organization is no accident. Both al-Wahayshi and al-Raymi witnessed how the al Qaeda organization in Yemen crumbled after an airstrike killed Abu Ali al-Harithi in November 2002 and al-Raymi and several other al Qaeda colleagues were arrested the same month. They knew they needed to build an organization that was able to withstand such losses, and, according to some sources, this was a subject they discussed at length while still in prison planning their future organization.
Other AQAP leaders who have been killed by U.S. airstrikes include:
Anwar al-Awlaki — English-speaking ideologue, recruiter; killed Sept. 30, 2011
Samir Khan — Creator of Inspire Magazine; killed Sept. 30, 2011
Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab — Chief of AQAP's Sharia Council; killed October 2012
Fahd al-Quso — Participated in USS Cole bombing; killed May 6, 2012
Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari — Member of the Sharia Council; killed Jan. 31, 2015
Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish — AQAP's Mufti, or religious official; killed April 12, 2015
Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi — AQAP spokesman; killed April 22, 2015
AQAP has been able to recover and continue to function after multiple losses of its leaders because it was designed to have a clear chain of command and succession. Sometimes these transitions have gone smoothly, as seen by the group's recent capitalization of the physical battlefield in eastern Yemen after civil war and Saudi airstrikes plunged the country into chaos. In other areas, the succession has not gone so smoothly: Inspire Magazine has never really recovered the vitality it had prior to Khan's death.
Nevertheless, unlike the leadership transition of the al Qaeda core from bin Laden to al-Zawahiri in 2011, which took several months, the transition to al-Raymi was efficient, and Khalid Bartafi, another senior member of the group, quickly announced the new leader. There was no sense of doubt or indecision. This assertiveness is important because the group is threatened by U.S. airstrikes and by the ideological threat posed by the disaffected al Qaeda members who have created a nascent Islamic State franchise in Yemen.
Loyal to the al Qaeda Core
The transition to al-Raymi's leadership means that AQAP will remain firmly in the al Qaeda orbit. According U.S. government records, al-Raymi spent time fighting with al Qaeda units supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even worked as a trainer at al Qaeda's al-Farouq training camp, and another camp near Kabul called Training Center No. 9. He was also reportedly responsible for helping Yemeni jihadists return to Yemen from Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban government. Al-Raymi was reportedly arrested in November 2002 for participating in a plot to kill the U.S. ambassador in Yemen and remained in prison until his 2006 escape.
Al-Raymi had known al-Wahayshi from Afghanistan and was reunited with him in prison after Iran extradited al-Wahayshi to Yemen in 2003. Al-Raymi was allegedly a driving force in planning and executing the prison escape that sprung the pair from a Yemeni prison along with 21 other jihadists, though there are persistent rumors that the escape plot was aided by corrupt officials. As previously noted, al-Raymi worked hand-in-glove with al-Wahayshi to create AQAP. While al-Wahayshi was the organizer, al-Raymi has been the military brains of the group, both in terms of training and in planning and executing operations. While al-Wahayshi was the group's administrator, al-Raymi was the group's general. Given this background, there is nothing to suggest that al-Raymi will stray from the al Qaeda ideological line. Besides, with his younger brother Ali in captivity in Guantanamo Bay, al-Raymi has the motivation to focus on attacking the far enemy.
Al-Raymi's ideological adherence to the al Qaeda core's targeting guidance was perhaps most evident in the video he made apologizing to the victims of an attack against the Yemeni Ministry of Defense compound in Sanaa on Dec. 5, 2013. Al-Raymi said in the video that the team of attackers had been instructed to avoid the mosque and the hospital in their assault on the compound but that one of the attackers disobeyed those orders and attacked the hospital. Al-Raymi offered to pay restitution to the families of the victims for the mistake, a targeting philosophy clearly in keeping with Ayman al-Zawahiri's "General Guidelines for Jihad" that was published in August 2013. Bartafi and AQAP's high-profile bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri also appear to be firmly in the al Qaeda camp ideologically.
AQAP has also made several statements criticizing the Islamic State for its attacks that intentionally target Muslims and the places of worship of non-Muslims, things the al Qaeda targeting guidance forbids. While the authors of those statements, al-Ansi and al-Nadhari, are now dead, there is little doubt that the statements also reflect the opinions of other members of AQAP's Sharia and Shura councils.
Ideologies are far harder to kill than individuals. This fact is especially true for an ideology that teaches adherents that there is a war against Islam, that "true believers" will be persecuted for their beliefs, and that encourages followers to embrace and even celebrate martyrdom. Al-Wahayshi's death will not lead to the death of the global jihadist ideology — or of the militancy that emanates from that ideology — any more than the deaths of Azzam or bin Laden did.
A man is dead, but the ideology he promoted and the organization he founded clearly live on.