Nasir al-Wuhayshi and the Arabian Peninsula

Three years ago, in the months leading up to the February 2006 escape of Nasir al-Wuhayshi and 22 other prisoners, al-Qaeda was in a state of disrepair in Yemen – its loyalists hunted, arrested and put on trial in a seemingly successful, US-backed counterterrorism campaign.  As al-Qaeda raged next door in Iraq, broadcasting its daily advances through web-based media, in Yemen, al-Qaeda was silent: no messages claiming attacks, no multimedia propaganda and, most importantly, no visible leadership.

Yet today the group is all of the above, revamped as a media-savvy insurgency reminiscent of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  In recent months alone, al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch has claimed a brazen attack on the US embassy in Sana'a, appeared unmasked and on-camera in speeches to the public, and received an endorsement by name from al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, prompting a February 2009 assessment by the US intelligence community that “Yemen is reemerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al-Qa’ida…”

In truth, al-Qaeda has been steadily reemerging in Yemen since the February 3, 2006 Sana’a prison fiasco.  Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the current al-Qaeda emir in Yemen, and many of the other 22 Yemeni escapees were veterans of al-Qaeda's wars across the globe, hardened fighters with experience in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran.  But they have also proven adaptive, seizing on the success of al-Qaeda’s media efforts in Iraq to produce a parallel campaign in Yemen.  “[Our jihadi] media personnel, may Allah reward them, have broken the Crusader media campaign, and they excelled against it in all visual, audio, written, programming, montage, internet, and other fields,” Wuhayshi declared in January 2009.

Today, a number of al-Qaeda-affiliated Saudi militants, some of whom appear on a recent Saudi-issued list of 85 most wanted terrorism suspects, have joined Nasir al-Wuhayshi in Yemen to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group is at present an active, threatening insurgency with many elements of al-Qaeda's most powerful branches, structured as a network of committees dedicated to media, dawa’a, Shari’ah and military affairs.  Indeed, Wuhayshi’s deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri, is a Saudi native and former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, as are several others in the organization.  As a result, Wuhayshi leads a united front increasingly focused on the type of high-profile, foreign target attacks favored by al-Qaeda – attacks such as the March 2009 dual suicide bombings targeting Korean tourists and delegates in Yemen.

Nasir al-Wuhayshi Free in Third Year

For three years, the recruitment efforts of Nasir al-Wuhayshi and al-Qaeda in Yemen have gone largely unimpeded.  As a result, the once loosely-affiliated groups constituting al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen are thriving, and Wuhayshi is becoming bolder in his actions.  In recent months alone, and ostensibly from inside Yemen despite his fugitive status, Wuhayshi has declared the establishment of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a fusion of al-Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, provided an in-person interview to a local journalist, and appeared unmasked and on-camera for the first time, seated calmly among fellow al-Qaeda commanders.

Thus, despite a number of setbacks, the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen has grown steadily for three years since the February 2006 prison escape.  Wuhayshi, regarded as the local al-Qaeda emir since as early as mid-2007, was among the original architects of what is now a structured and effective organization. In January 2009, Wuhayshi proudly announced the advanced state of his organization:

  "We are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula… We have an administrative form and a leader – praise be to Allah, and a deputy leader, a consultative council, a military council, and a media and Shariah committee… all of these things."  

However, the most notable indication of Wuhayshi’s progress appeared two months earlier: a coveted public endorsement, by name, from the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan.  In a November 2008 video interview, al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Yemen to be “cleansed of the Crusaders and their aides” by al-Qaeda’s local fighters and “their emir, Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, whom I have only known as the best of brothers.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri endorses Nasir al-Wuhayshi as al-Qaeda emir in Yemen in November 2008 video interview

For a rising group such as Wuhayshi’s al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, the importance of such an endorsement cannot be overstated.  This public recognition from the top al-Qaeda leadership stating that he is indeed the al-Qaeda emir in Yemen provided Wuhayshi the necessary legitimacy to wield the al-Qaeda brand name at will.

Shortly thereafter, a shift occurred in the rhetoric released by Wuhayshi and his newly-rebranded Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  After years of calling for support of the jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Wuhayshi is now focusing on domestic targets, issuing direct calls for attacks on foreign targets and local security forces in the Arabian Peninsula.  Where Wuhayshi once called for the export of fighters to the various jihadi theatres abroad, he now calls on loyalists outside Yemen – specifically those in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf – to rise and support Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


Background on Nasir al-Wuhayshi

Nasir Abd al-Karim Abdullah al-Wuhayshi was born October 1, 1976 in the province of al-Baydha in Yemen. In the 1990s, Wuhayshi left Yemen and traveled to Afghanistan, where he served as a secretary under Usama bin Laden.  Following the American invasion of Afghanistan in August 2001, Wuhayshi fled to Iran where he was eventually arrested and, in November 2003, extradited to Yemen.  Wuhayshi remained in prison in Yemen until his escape on February 3, 2006.

Approximately seven months later, on September 15, 2006, two of Wuhayshi’s fellow prison escapees, Shafiq Ahmed Zaid and Omar Saeed Jarallah, carried out coordinated suicide attacks targeting facilities of Canadian and American oil companies operating in Yemen.  A statement released a month later announced “the dawn of jihad” in Yemen and claimed the two attacks for a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Six months later, in April 2007, al-Qaeda suspects at trial in Yemen reportedly identified Nasir al-Wuhayshi as the al-Qaeda emir in Yemen. In June, an audio message appeared from Qasim al-Raymi, another of the 23 Sana’a prison escapees, naming Nasir al-Wuhayshi as the emir of the Al-Qaeda Organization in Yemen.  In the message, Raymi states “I was tasked by my emir, the leader of the Al-Qaeda Organization in Yemen, Abu Basir Nasir, to respond [to the government]… we will not stop the jihad or give ourselves up as long as the Crusaders still roam free in our lands…”

Shift in Targets and Tactics: 2007-2009

Much of the rhetoric released by Nasir al-Wuhayshi in 2007 and early 2008 was addressed to the local population in Yemen, asking the people to sever relations with the government and instead support al-Qaeda.  “Announce your exemption from the agents of the [Crusader] cross, even if they were the closest and most beloved ones to you… support the mujahideen… shelter and aid them,” Wuhayshi declared in a December 2007 audio message.

During this time, Wuhayshi sounded less like a participant than an observer, conceding the difficulties facing al-Qaeda loyalists in Yemen and encouraging them to travel to Iraq or other jihadi theatres.  “Today we hear a lot about the soldiers of Iraq… if you don't catch up with the soldiers of Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, then… join those who are in Iraq, the Levant or Afghanistan because the war with the [Crusader] cross is happening there,” Wuhayshi urged in the same December 2007 message.  To those jihadists who remained in Yemen, he requested they be “patient” and “maintain secrecy” in their actions.

Images produced by al-Qaeda multimedia department in Yemen (left and right)
and Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula leaders (center)

However, towards the end of 2008 a shift occurred in the messages from Wuhayshi.  Following the killing of Hamza al-Qa’iti, another of the 23 prison escapees, and other jihadists in an August 2008 raid by Yemeni security forces in Hadramout, Wuhayshi released a more targeted, threatening statement than those previous, writing:

  “I am astonished how [the Yemeni government] showed the media that he eliminated the mujahideen and killed the wanted [in the Tarim raid], as though the mujahideen were only those five! …the coming generations [of mujahideen] are [unlike] those you know; they are seekers of death and lovers of martyrdom… So, be cautious, if you can.  Let every man count his word before he utters it, for perhaps it will be his [last].”  

However, the most notable indication of Wuhayshi’s progress appeared two months earlier: a coveted public endorsement, by name, from the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan.  In a November 2008 video interview, al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Yemen to be “cleansed of the Crusaders and their aides” by al-Qaeda’s local fighters and “their emir, Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, whom I have only known as the best of brothers.”

By the start of 2009, Wuhayshi’s calls for action abroad had shifted to focus on targets at home on the Arabian Peninsula.  No longer were his supporters to remain “patient” and “maintain secrecy,” but instead to kill “by any means” Westerners found in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.  It is “shameful” to travel to Iraq or Afghanistan, Wuhayshi proclaimed, while Westerners reside on the Arabian Peninsula.  In a message released January 19, 2009, Wuhayshi stated the following:

  “We, the soldiers of Islam, advise whoever finds a Crusader on the Islamic [Arabian] Peninsula to kill him by any means, even with a knife, because an explosive belt, car bomb, or rifle is not mandatory… Expose yourself to martyrdom.  It is shameful to go to Baghdad and Kabul while the infidel desecrates our land, land which they are not permitted to enter.”  

In his most recent audio message, released February 19, 2009, Wuhayshi calls for military preparation – particularly in urban centers – against government and Western targets, writing:

  “Prepare with anti-tank mines, explosive devices and belts, rifles and well-managed ambushes, and courageous raids. Be, especially the people of cities, first in all of that. Your role is great and immense.”  

In the same message, Wuhayshi calls on supporters abroad, from the regions of the Najd and the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf, to rise and support his Yemen-based group, stating “I direct a call to… the Najd and Hijaz [in Saudi Arabia] and our people in the Gulf… jihad is your first duty.”

More than in previous messages, Wuhayshi took great care in the February 2009 speech to address the sympathies of Yemen’s tribal leaders – praising them as “proud,” “honorable” and listing several tribes by name, revealing how crucial the role of tribal support remains for his group, stating:

  “O proud tribes [of Yemen]… you have the equipment, weapons, and concern to support Islam… this military campaign [of the Yemeni government] that is deploying in Ma'rib, Jawf, Shabwah, Abyan, Sana’a, and Hadramout [aims to] break the standing of the tribes, disarm them, control their land, and kill their children so that it becomes easy for the vile agents and the Crusade to humiliate them.”  

Wuhayshi’s efforts to court tribal leaders demonstrate the dangers posed to his organization by Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s parallel campaign aimed at convincing the country’s semi-autonomous tribes to work with the government instead of hosting al-Qaeda.

Future of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Today, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula displays both the interest and the capacity to attack soft, foreign targets in Yemen, demonstrated most recently in the dual suicide bombings targeting Korean tourists and delegates in March 2009.

Banner advertising January 2009 video from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Just two months before the attacks, Wuhayshi spoke directly to the importance of targeting tourists, stating that all foreigners entering the Arabian Peninsula under the guise of tourism are actually working as missionaries of Christianity or Western debauchery, or are simply spies, writing:

  “The killing of [tourists] is support for Islam… because those [tourists] are part of the Crusader campaign… Those who enter in the name of tourism are in truth one of three things: either callers for Christianity [missionaries]… or callers for pornography and spreading of debauchery… or they are spies who spy on the Muslims.”  

Foreign targets generally – tourists, diplomatic missions and foreign-run oil facilities – are increasingly the focus of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the group’s veteran leadership assumes the responsibility of the al-Qaeda brand name.

Furthermore, the group’s failure thus far to carry out such attacks in Saudi Arabia should not be confused with a lack of desire to operate across the border.  Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s increasingly robust infrastructure is reflected in the number of Saudi jihadists crossing into Yemen to join Wuhayshi’s group – via transit routes that could potentially be used to ferry personnel and weapons back into Saudi Arabia.  As this infrastructure continues to grow, so too will the group’s recruitment efforts, financial support and regenerative capabilities.