The Death of a Top al-Qaeda Commander
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirmed yesterday the death of one of its top commanders, Said al-Shihri, the Saudi national whose release from Guantanamo, failed rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia, and ascension to the top of Qaeda’s most dangerous and active franchise made his symbolic importance nearly as great as his strategic one. He was killed, they announced, due to “lax security measures during his telephone contacts.”
(It is worth noting that this is not the first time Shihri has been pronounced dead, but the first time it has been announced by AQAP. Having your death mourned by friends is generally a better sign of being dead than the boasts of enemies.)
Al-Shihri was an experienced jihadist at the time of the September 11th attacks, and he made his way to Afghanistan by October. He fought there until his capture in December and subsequent rendition to Guantanamo. He was released from Guantanamo in 2007 and sent back to Saudi Arabia, where they entered him into a rehabilitation program. He was released from that a year later, as Saudi officials decided he no longer posed a threat. He was rehabilitated. It didn’t take.
Al-Shihri crossed the border in Yemen, where he met up with al-Qaeda leaders there, who had been patiently growing their organization with daring attacks and increasingly-sophisticated propaganda. The biggest piece of propaganda was to come from al-Shihri himself. In January of 2009, when the world was watching the inauguration of a bright young President who pledged to clean up the mistakes of his predecessors, Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi recorded a video announcing that their Yemeni franchise had grown. As President Obama signed an executive order to shut down the prison at Guantanamo, a man freed from it joined the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization.
This was a huge symbolic wallop to the head, and helped to stifle Obama’s plans to close the prison (though one could argue he would have been met with resistance regardless). Al-Shihri ,though, was not just a face for a poster. He was a vetern jihadist, and helped plan the almost-successful and still-shocking attack on Saudi prince Muhammed bin Nayef.
So his death is really the first major blow against AQAP’s leadership, unless you count Anwar al-Awlaki, which I do not. Where will the organization go from here?
The first question is whether or not this will prove a fatal blow. It seems unlikely. AQAP still has a strong core leadership in al-Wuhayshi and al-Raymi, as well as others. And, more importantly, it has diffused itself throughout the country, taking advantage of the political turmoil. The leadership learned the lessons of failed terror cells- concentration is a disaster.
Where it could hurt is in fund-raising. Al-Shihri was a veteran, and has links outside of Yemen, having fought in both Afghanistan and Chechnya, those crucibles of jihad. He was a Saud, and not a provincial Yemeni. His links and his reputation made him invaluable. His memory is still there, but this will be a growing problem for AQAP. They don’t want the “Arabian Peninsula” part of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to be a lie. That linkage was crucial in tying them into the global jihad movement.
However, I don’t want to overstate that. Their successes, even “moral” victories like the near bombings in December of 2009 and October of 2010, earned AQAP credibility. They are a “lessons-learned” organization, and have grown in strength so that a single blow isn’t enough to bring them down. The question going forward will be if “lax security measures” that led to his death will lead to tightening of AQAP’s internal security, or to paranoia. The US shouldn’t take this as just a triumph of drones, and use them solely. The loss of a leader, even one that can be replaced, is the right time for human intelligence to exploit any cracks.