In an unconfirmed development, the chief of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been reported killed by Adenonline. According to Yemen’s 201st Brigade and medical officials at Basuhaib Military Hospital, several unidentified bodies of suspected commander were brought to the Aden facility after clashing with group on the outskirts of Zinjibar, 40 miles to the northeast. Markings on one of these bodies were interpreted as Nasser Al Wahishi, AQAP’s leader since 2009.
The truth of this claim has yet to be verified by independent sources. Once an associate of Osama bin Laden, Al Wahishi has been prematurely crossed out before, including December 2009. Upon review, a series of U.S. strikes eliminated a cadre of AQAP fighters and dozens of Yemeni civilians, but not Al Wahishi or cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. No further accounts have been released in the eight hours since the initial report, and trusting a military source is never wise in Yemen. Officials at a military hospital are only a step above, although some have admitted to crimes that occurred Basuhaib, located in the Aden district of Tawahi.
Factoring in the need to confirm a high-value target, likely through U.S. forensics assistance, “one of those bodies matches the features of Al Wahishi” isn’t the most convincing statement.
At Yemen’s political level, local reports have also surfaced indicating a final round of American and Saudi pressure on Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen’s president of 33 years hasn’t stopped talking about his return and is still pushing “the ballot box” over the U.S.-Saudi proposal sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saleh needs another “win” in his pocket and Al Wahishi would make for a perfect “gift” to Washington, to be spun off as proof of his cooperation. The same pattern occurred in early May, when the GCC’s deal was declared dead by the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and GCC Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani.
U.S. air-strikes then began to intensify after Saleh started to feed new information. A Predator and Harrier would “narrowly miss” al-Awlaki, a concrete sign that the two sides planned to continue their cooperation regardless of Yemen’s revolution.
Several reasons could plausibly explain Al Wahishi’s death. Given that the 201st Brigade reported the kill as an internal act, not a drone strike, he would have to be surrounded in combat or by surprise. AQAP’s chief was reportedly killed while fighting in Zinjibar’s Doufas district, the battle’s current focal point, meaning that he could have realized its significance and transferred to the front. Commanders earn street cred online by actively participating in operations, and Al Wahishi would have realized this factor as well if he did find himself in Doufas.
So it wouldn’t be shocking if Al Wahishi ended up a casualty of his own war.
However problems would immediately surface from his death. An emboldened Saleh becomes the major obstacle from which all the others flow; his stimulated takeover of Abyan would continue to pay dividends after scaring the U.S. political sphere. Al Wahishi’s body takes the shape of a bargaining chip with Washington, to leverage even more favorable terms through the GCC or to void the proposal entirely. Because Saleh would use Al Wahishi’s death to protract Yemen’s crisis, one can safely conclude that his loss is a lose-lose situation. If he or his corrupt regime is left in power, the conditions that foster AQAP’s appeal and growth will remain unchanged and Al Wahishi will be replaced.
Either way AQAP’s war grinds on, to be exploited by Saleh and Washington.