Writing about alleged terrorist deaths means being ready to retract what you’ve written if, as happens pretty frequently, the report of their death turns out to be wrong. One minute you’re talking about Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri kicking the bucket, the next his organization is releasing new recordings that may (but also may not!) be him and may (but also may not!) have been recorded after he’s supposed to have died. So then you maybe write something about how gosh, I guess Douri is still alive and kicking after all, but the fact of the matter is that he may very well be dead, and pretty soon up is down and nothing makes sense anymore.
Still, it seems pretty safe to say that at least one of the two major terrorist deaths that have been reported so far this week will actually stick. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Emir of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the number 2 figure in Al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears to have been killed in a US missile strike in Yemen last Friday. Al-Qaeda has acknowledged his death, which is a pretty good sign that the reports are accurate, and there was this tweet from AQ-affiliated Jordanian religious figure Abu Qatada:
My very basic Arabic gives me something like this:
God have mercy on the martyr Nasir al-Wuhayshi.
Their blood is the fuel of the movement, their death is the light for the wanderers.
“And He [God] takes martyrs from among you, and God does not love the evildoers” (Quran, Surat al-Imran, 3:140)
Anyway, I got the first line right (and the third line, since that’s from the Quran), which is the operative part. Abu Qatada is still well connected enough in Al-Qaeda that he presumably knows for sure that Wuhayshi is dead.
If the past 14 years have taught us anything, it should be that you can’t kill a terror network by decapitating it. But at the same time, if you can take out a particularly violent and/or particularly effective commander, it’s probably worth doing (assuming other considerations, especially the risk of collateral damage, are favorable). And Wuhayshi was one of Al-Qaeda’s real stars, first because he was running really the only Al-Qaeda affiliate that continued to have success following the rise of ISIS as an independent competitor (and the only one with any demonstrated capacity to attempt strikes at the US) and second because he was still taking Zawahiri’s phone calls. It’s possible that the main Al-Qaeda organization, such as it is these days, will feel Wuhayshi’s loss more than AQAP, which can (and has) simply plug another fighter in his place and carry on trying to take advantage of Yemen’s chaos. But for main Al-Qaeda, which seems to be just surviving Zawahiri’s turn at the top, having Wuhayshi as the next guy in line was pretty important, and as he was the only AQ leader still trying to hit the West it could be that his death will force the organization to regroup on that front.
Meanwhile, over the weekend a US strike on the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya may have killed Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. This one is a lot less certain; Ansar al-Sharia, one of Al-Qaeda’s surrogates in Libya, did not include Belmokhtar’s name among those killed in the strike on Ajdabiya, which isn’t proof of anything but doesn’t help sort things out either. Belmokhtar has had a long and bloody career as a terrorist all over North Africa and into the West African sahel region. Born in Algeria, he trained and fought with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s before returning home and joining the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA), which was trying to overthrow Algeria’s government. When the GIA started to fall apart he joined the group that would eventually become Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was given his own battalion, which carried out attacks in Algeria as well as in neighboring Mauritania and Mali.
Belmokhtar was run out of AQIM in 2012 over a long list of grievances that hilariously included things like “failing to file expense reports” (jihadi middle managers: they’re just like our middle managers!) and “ignoring meetings,” but really because his profile had gotten too high for the comfort of AQIM’s top brass. Belmokhtar pledged allegiance directly to Zawahiri and formed his own organization that then joined with another AQIM splinter group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest or MUJAO). It was around this time that Belmokhtar planned and carried out (ostensibly in response to the French intervention against MUJAO in Mali) the 2013 attack on a natural gas field near In Aménas, Algeria, in which roughly 800 hostages were taken and 39 killed, against 29 terrorists killed by Algerian forces during the operation. Later in 2013 MUJAO merged with yet another AQIM splinter group to form a group called Al-Mourabitoun, part of which pledged allegiance to ISIS a couple of months ago. Belmokhtar rejected that pledge, and if there’s been some kind of internal schism in Al-Mourabitoun that may explain why Belmokhtar was apparently in eastern Libya over the weekend instead of in his usual West African stomping grounds.
It’s well worth noting at this point that Belmokhtar has been “dead” at least once before, killed supposedly by French and Chadian soldiers in March 2013. Needless to say, he wasn’t dead then, and to be honest he probably isn’t dead now either. The value of taking Belmokhtar out may not be all that high from an organizational perspective, particularly if he’s lost control over Al-Mourabitoun and is now freelancing it. But he is an active terrorist with a big rap sheet, so it’s hard to argue that the world will be a worse place without him in it. Of course, that’s assuming that he’s really dead, which, unlike the case of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, seems far from certain.