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HomeMiddle EastNasser al-Wuhayshi, Al Qaeda Yemen Leader, Confirmed Dead in U.S. Strike

Nasser al-Wuhayshi, Al Qaeda Yemen Leader, Confirmed Dead in U.S. Strike

By KAREEM FAHIM
June 16, 2015

BAGHDAD — Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen released a video statement on Tuesday confirming the death of its leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, in an American missile strike last week. His death was also confirmed by the Obama administration on Tuesday.

Mr. Wuhayshi, 38, who had led Qaeda operations in Yemen since 2002 and was also the global extremist network’s second-ranking leader, was killed along with two other operatives, the statement said.

The group said that its military commander, Qassim al-Raimi, had been chosen as Mr. Wuhayshi’s successor.

“Let it be known to the enemies of God that their battle is not only with one person or figure, no matter how important,” a senior Qaeda operative, Khaled Batarfi, said in the statement. “To the infidel America: God has kept alive those who will trouble your life and make you taste the bitterness of defeat.”

The second-ranking official of Al Qaeda, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, in Yemen in 2012.

The Qaeda statement apparently resolves uncertainty about the fate of Mr. Wuhayshi, but the result of an attack over the weekend on another prominent militant was in doubt. Over the weekend, American F-15s carried out an airstrike in Libya against Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who planned an attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013 in which 38 foreign workers died. It was unclear whether the missiles had hit their target.

The White House statement called Mr. Wuhayshi’s death “a major blow to AQAP, Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, and to Al Qaeda more broadly.” The term stands for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Mr. Wuhayshi oversaw “the group’s plotting against the United States, U.S. interests in the Arabian Peninsula, and those of our allies in the region,” and was responsible for the “deaths of innocent Yemenis and Westerners, including Americans,” the statement said.

Mr. Wuhayshi’s death, the statement added, “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader, and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”

Despite the recent deaths of Mr. Wuhayshi and several other senior leaders, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown more formidable in Yemen over the last few months, capitalizing on the civil war there to capture territory and forge new alliances with Sunni tribes to fight the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group from the north that controls large parts of the country.

In early April, Al Qaeda seized control of Al Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city, reportedly capturing millions of dollars from the vaults of the central bank. The city, which is in a remote coastal area, has remained relatively untouched by the spreading civil war.

Saudi Arabia, which is leading an air offensive against the Houthis that began in late March and has carried out airstrikes across the country, has not taken any military action against Al Qaeda in Al Mukalla. The militant group is also fighting the Houthis.

The militants’ high profile in Al Mukalla – where they interact openly with residents, and regularly patrol the streets — may have made them more vulnerable. The editor of a local news website, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal by the militants, said they had likely been “infilitrated” by spies.

The Qaeda men had “made themselves too visible” in the city, he added. “They are available in mosques, markets and restaurants. Mobile phone sellers say the militants enjoy buying smartphones, like the Samsung Galaxy. In the afternoons, they park their cars outside local restaurants and have their favorite meal – fried chicken,” he said. “It would be easy for anyone to catch them.”

At least three senior militants, including Mr. Wuhayshi, have been killed in recent weeks while sitting by Al Mukalla’s seaside. A resident of the city who said he witnessed the drone strike that killed Mr. Wuhayshi on June 9 said that three militants – he did not recognize any of them at the time – got out of a black pickup truck and sat in a picnic area by the water. At sunset, the men went to pray at a nearby mosque. After prayers, the witness said he heard “two big, consecutive explosions.”

When he approached the scene of the explosions, he saw body parts, and “the upper part of a bearded and bloodstained man.” Armed men quickly arrived, telling bystanders to stay away in case of another strike. “Al Qaeda did not allow people to take photos of the scene, until an hour after the explosion,” he said.

As recently as Monday, though, American officials were saying that they were still investigating reports of Mr. Wuhayshi’s death, an indication of the murky nature of the Obama administration’s policy of using missile strikes to remotely kill people it believes to be militants, with little certainty about who the missiles have struck.

In the video statement, Mr. Batarfi said the militant group had been able to agree on the selection of Mr. Raimi as Mr. Wuhayshi’s successor despite the group’s many distractions, including fighting the Houthis and their allies “on more than 11 fronts.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

Deir al-Zour, Syria, in 2014. Since taking control of the area, the Islamic State has been attacked and has not granted some of the liberties that it permits elsewhere.
By BEN HUBBARD
June 16, 2015

ERBIL, Iraq — In northern Syria, the jihadists of the Islamic State have fixed power lines, dug sewage systems and painted sidewalks. In Raqqa, they search markets and slaughterhouses for expired food and sick animals. Farther south, in Deir al-Zour, they have imposed taxes on farmers and shopkeepers and fined men for wearing short beards.

The group runs regular buses across the border with Iraq to Mosul, where it publicly kills captives and trains children for guerrilla war. Last month, it reopened a luxury hotel in the city and offered three free nights to newlyweds, meals included.

A year after the Islamic State seized Mosul, and 10 months after the United States and its allies launched a campaign of airstrikes against it, the jihadist group continues to dig in, stitching itself deeper into the fabric of the communities it controls.

In vast swaths of Syria and Iraq with shattered ties to national governments, the jihadists have worked to fill the void, according to interviews with residents from areas in Syria and Iraq ruled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The group is offering reliable, if harsh, security; providing jobs in decimated economies; and projecting a rare sense of order in a region overwhelmed by conflict.

With no political solutions in sight for the wars that have allowed the group to thrive, little has prevented the jihadists from deepening their roots in ways that will make them even harder to dislodge.

“As a way of life, people got used to it,” said a laborer from Raqqa who had earned good money painting the group’s new offices in the city.

If you followed the rules, the jihadists left you alone, he said, although he wished life were more peaceful.

“It is not our life, all the violence and fighting and death,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, like others from areas run by the Islamic State, so as not to anger the jihadists. “But they got rid of the tyranny of the Arab rulers.”

Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.

In the process, the Islamic State’s administration has ballooned. The group has issued declarations banning dynamite fishing and Apple products, pressuring teachers to work in its schools, offering rewards for the killing of Jordanian fighter pilots and advising wounded residents not to travel to Turkey for prosthetic limbs because the Islamic State now makes them at home, according to jihadist documents compiled by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The Islamic State’s territory now stretches across hundreds of miles, from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria into central Iraq, where it shares a volatile border with the Kurds in the north and approaches Baghdad in the south. Much of that area is sparsely populated desert, but the group has millions of people under its charge, as well as archaeological sites, a hydroelectric dam and oil fields that help finance its operations.

The Islamic State differs from jihadist groups like Al Qaeda in its drive to establish a Sunni Muslim state governed by an extreme version of Islam.

Its method of seizing territory seeks to lay the groundwork for this by prompting a “geographic cleansing,” according to Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist groups. Enemies, like government soldiers, the police and those who do not fit in, such as minorities or elites, flee or are killed. What remains are mostly Sunni Arabs who try to continue their lives with little disruption.

Graphic | ISIS Finances Are Strong ISIS has more than enough in its coffers despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group.

The Islamic State works to co-opt them through the “management of chaos,” providing services otherwise lacking in wartime, Mr. Abu Hanieh said. “People may not be with the organization’s ideology, but the group has been able to give some stability, punish thieves and put in place a legal system,” he said. “In general, the normal people want no more than that.”

Many residents have become dependent on the Islamic State’s services, Mr. Tamimi said.

“The end effect of this is that the Islamic State entrenches itself and becomes very difficult to get rid of,” he said. “Are you going to bomb the schools in the towns they run and deny the people access to any education whatsoever?”

To enhance their staying power, the jihadists have focused on children, revamping school curriculums and indoctrinating teachers.

Interactive Feature | Obama’s Evolution on ISIS Some of President Obama’s statements about the American strategy to confront ISIS and its effectiveness.

Islamic State propaganda videos released online often show children planting bombs to kill Iraqi security forces, cheering for Islamic State convoys and watching executions. One recent video showed young boys in black masks learning to fight, do an army crawl and carry out ambushes with automatic weapons.

“The biggest threat we have is that the children have a new curriculum that is very extremist,” said a Kurdish security official who monitors the Islamic State from northern Iraq. “This is a ticking time bomb for the future.”

That worries parents in Islamic State areas.

One former real estate agent said that even though he hated the jihadists, he had managed to survive the changes in Raqqa. He tore the stereo out of his car so the jihadists could not accuse him of listening to forbidden music, but he still does so at home, quietly. He buys cigarettes from smugglers who sell only to people they know, since jihadists punish smoking as a crime.

“This is like heroin for them,” the real estate agent said, enjoying a pack during a recent trip to Turkey.

He does not criticize the jihadists at home for fear that his 8-year-old son will repeat what he says in public, endangering the family. But his son hears things elsewhere, he said, “and now sometimes I hear him defending ISIS.”

Some adults said living under the Islamic State had changed their views. “If you had asked me before the revolution, I would have said I wanted to be the richest person, with houses and cars,” another Raqqa resident said. “But after we sat with their religious teachers, we changed our way of thinking.”

He was considering whether to join the group, he said, and knew he would marry and raise his children in Raqqa so they could learn “the true religion.”

The dynamics of Islamic State rule differ from place to place. In Mosul, food is plentiful, but the jihadists restrict people who try to leave the city, making relatives vouch for them and arresting the family members if the travelers do not return.

Life is easier in Raqqa, where residents regularly cross the Turkish border, returning with goods and cash earned outside.

Locals suffer more around Deir al-Zour, where the Islamic State fought for nearly a year to subdue local tribes and rebel groups in battles that killed more than 1,000 people.

Bad blood from the fighting persists, and Islamic State fighters are still ambushed regularly, activists said. The Islamic State has responded with public executions and heavy taxes on harvests, phone lines, water and electricity.

“Their policy is to make people hungry while they pay their fighters so that becoming one of them is the only way to live and eat,” one activist said.

Another activist, with the group DeirEzzor24, said one of his cousins had joined the Islamic State, earning $100 per month, plus $100 for his parents and $40 each for his siblings, a strategy aimed at winning over the whole family.

In an audio message released last month, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, renewed his call for Muslims to join the state. He said those outside it were “homeless” and “humiliated,” while Islamic State residents lived “with might and honor, secure by God’s bounty alone.”

Residents of Islamic State areas did not describe easy lives, but some wanted the jihadists to stay, reflecting the deep political failures in their countries.

Many now living under the Islamic State in Syria suffered under both President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups who chased out his forces, leaving them with no alternative to the jihadists.

And many Sunnis in Iraq trust the Islamic State more than the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the militias it has used to fight the jihadists.

“Now there is more security and freedom, no arrests, no harassment, no concrete barriers and no checkpoints where we used to spend hours to get into the city,” said Mohamed Al-Dulaimi of the jihadist-controlled city of Falluja.

“What will happen if the militias enter Falluja?” he said. “We will take our guns and fight them, not because we are ISIS, but because the militias will kill us all.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Karam Shoumali from Istanbul and Omar Al-Jawoshy from Baghdad.

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(via NY Times)