Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The assassination of Al-Wuhayshi

The US is in a de facto alliance with Al-Qaeda in the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as can be seen in the likely outcomes of its recent drone attacks, writes Dan Glazebrook

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), an amalgam of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the Al-Qaeda franchise, was recently executed in a US drone strike in Yemen.

He was reportedly killed while relaxing on a beach in Mukhalla, part of a vast swathe of territory the group has gained courtesy of US-British supported Saudi air strikes over recent months.

With characteristic triumphalism, US National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price said that Al-Wuhayshi’s death had struck a “major blow” to the organisation, a view echoed on the BBC, which called the killing a “big blow.”

CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank went one further, calling his death “the biggest blow against Al-Qaeda since the death of Osama Bin Laden.” This was the typically narrow range of opinion from our democratic representatives and the media outlets that hold them to account.

Not everyone shares this rosy view, however. “Celebrating the death of Al-Wuhayshi as if it means the death of AQAP is a very flawed way to look at this,” commented Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, speaking to the International Business Times.

For one thing, the assassination immediately catapulted AQAP military chief Qassim Al-Raymi to the top position in the organisation. According to Yemen analyst Hisham Al-Omesiy, Al-Raymi is “more dangerous and aggressive” than Al-Wuhayshi. As he said, in the wake of the killing, “You will be seeing a more aggressive Al-Qaeda.”

This is an outcome that likely suits the US, now in a de facto alliance with Al-Qaeda in the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as across much of the rest of the region.

Judging from their public activities, there seem to have been some real differences between the dead leader and his replacement over how to conduct the war against the Houthis.

Whereas Al-Raymi has organised suicide bombings at religious gatherings, such as that killing of 33 Zaydi Shia last December, Al-Wuhayshi had previously given “clear instructions to operating cells to avoid attacking mixed gatherings and to focus on armed Houthis,” according to an AQAP operative who was later assassinated.

It is revealing that this comment was made in January of this year, intended perhaps as a veiled criticism of Al-Raymi’s actions. In this light, the assassination, and Al-Raymi’s replacement of Al-Wuhayshi, may well represent a US desire to see AQAP “take the gloves off” in the battle for Yemen, especially given the new urgency resulting from the spillover of the war into Saudi Arabia.

The use of Al-Qaeda as a proxy force to fight the West’s wars has always been riddled with dangers, of course, especially given the organisation’s at least theoretical commitment to attacking the West itself. Hence the need to conduct these periodic purges, which take out those less conducive to serving the West’s regional strategy and replace them with those better placed to do so.

In this light, the recent assassination is not so dissimilar to that of Osama bin Laden himself. Bin Laden, in his last years, had become increasingly disillusioned with the direction of movement, criticising its growing sectarianism and expressing anger and frustration that its members seemed more interested in perpetrating sectarian violence against fellow Muslims than in fighting Israel and the West.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri, on the other hand — the movement’s second-in-command, who immediately took over the reins of power following Bin Laden’s death — was always more ambivalent on this issue. Whilst he criticised Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, for his murderous attacks on Shia civilians, by 2010 he himself was virtually calling for a holy war against the Shia.

Given the West’s strategy of co-opting sectarian militias as proxy armies for its coming wars against Libya and Syria during this time, it was clear which of these men would be best suited for resurrecting the old jihadi-imperialist alliance.

It is no coincidence, then, that just as these wars began to get under way, Bin Laden was taken out and his organisation effectively handed over to Al-Zawahiri. Aside from the occasional token massacre in Boston or Paris, Al-Zawahiri has happily thrown his fighters wholeheartedly into a deadly sectarian war against the region’s last remaining independent powers and in open alliance with the “crusaders” his organisation is supposedly committed to destroying.

If recent testimony from a former AQAP operative is to be believed, Al-Raymi may turn out to be a similarly dependable ally. In an explosive recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Hani Mujahid, a member of Al-Qaeda since the 1980s who later became an informant for the Yemeni security services, claimed that Al-Raymi was also working for Yemeni intelligence, and called him “a creation of Yemen’s National Security Bureau.”

Mujahid claimed that both he and Al-Raymi had reported to Ammar Saleh, Yemen’s deputy security chief, nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a key link between Yemeni forces and the US under both his uncle’s rule and that of president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

If Al-Raymi had been working all along for Saleh, and Saleh for the US, no wonder US planners were so keen to facilitate his control of AQAP. He was, whether directly or indirectly, their man.

Of course, the US could not have been sure that Al-Raymi would assume the top job following the death of his boss — especially as, rare among top-level Al-Qaeda leaders, he had no fighting experience from the Afghan War of the 1980s. But April’s drone killing of Ibrahim Al-Rubaish, AQAP’s spiritual leader, and Nasser Al-Ansi, took out his two major potential rivals and helped clear his way to the top.

Al-Raymi certainly seems to have had protection from drone attacks. As the journalist Clayton Swisher has written, “Mujahid pointed out to Al-Jazeera in 2014 how many of AQAP’s leaders have been eviscerated in the US-led drone campaign.

“Every one, that is, except Al-Raymi, who has also miraculously survived Yemeni security force raids as well as cruise missile strikes. Mujahid intimates that, because Al-Raymi was collaborating with Saleh’s government, he had all along been spared.

“Qassim Al-Raymi comes from Rima … How is it that this man is not getting killed? It is impossible for someone to come from outside of the tribe and live in a strange tribe. His looks, his dialect, are different, and when you are a stranger, you become an easy target for the Americans.

“The sons of the tribes can hide. Indeed, many of the leaders whom Ali Abdullah Saleh could not contain were liquidated using drones as well as in ground ambushes.”

Al-Raymi was not the only one who avoided liquidation. A highly revealing article in the UK Sunday Times newspaper last year discussed how the assassination of AQAP bomb-maker Al-Asiri was averted at the last minute by a sudden CIA change of plan, only for him to turn up in Syria as a key part of the terror campaign against the Syrian government then being supported by the West.

Morten Storm, a British MI5 agent in AQAP, had devised a plan to deliver a cool box fitted with a tracking device to Ibrahim Al-Asiri, “the architect of a new generation of stealth bombs,” so that he could be assassinated in a US drone strike.

According to the article, “Storm says he was forced to pull out of the mission two years ago at the last minute after the CIA insisted that he deliver the cool box in person rather than by courier, thus putting his own life at risk.

“Western security officials believe that Al-Asiri has since passed on his bomb-making skills to foreign fighters in training camps in Syria ... Storm intended to fly to Yemen and arrange for the cool box to be delivered by courier, a method that had previously been used by the spy agencies.

“At the 11th hour, however, he says the CIA insisted on him delivering the equipment in person. The change of plan made Storm suspect that the Americans may also have wanted him killed in any subsequent drone strike. He therefore aborted the mission.”

The US drone war against Al-Qaeda may, it seems, be nothing but an elaborate means of promoting leaders and operatives happy to keep the movement working as an effective tool of US-British strategic regional policy.

Where the Israelis “mow the lawn,” to use their own lingo, the US is a little more subtle. It “weeds the garden,” so to speak, allowing their “flowers” — the Al-Asaris and the Al-Raymis — to flourish.

But the threat of death by drone also serves another purpose and is an effective way of not only controlling operatives but also of recruiting them. In the interview referred to earlier, Mujahid goes on to claim that those who refused to work as informants for Yemeni intelligence were themselves targeted for assassination.

“I know many shabab [youths] who were offered work in the National Security Bureau, but they refused. As a result, they were severely harassed by the security forces. They were forced to go to Abyan and to Hadramout where they were liquidated with drones upon the assumption that they were leading figures within the Al-Qaeda organisation and posing a danger to the US.”

 The claim bears an uncanny resemblance, though on a more brutal scale, to one reported by the UK newspaper the Independent in 2009 — that the British security service MI5 was trying to recruit British Muslims to work as agents within various militant organisations by threatening them with arrest and harassment under anti-terror laws if they refused.

 The war on terror — with its inevitable corollary that all those labelled terrorists can be stripped of their rights and even of their life — is, as it turns out, just the leverage the security forces need to recruit terrorists.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis.

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