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Al-Qaida's No. 2 Leader Is Killed In U.S. Drone Strike


Before the rise of ISIS, the militant group most threatening to U.S. interests was said to be al-Qaida's branch in Yemen. It calls itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP, and its leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi was also second in command of al-Qaida internationally. Well, this morning a video claiming to come from a AQAP said al-Wuhayshi is dead, killed by a U.S. drone. The United States typically waits for DNA evidence before confirming a drone strike and hasn't commented yet. For more, we check in with NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Alice, good morning.


GREENE: So what do we know at this point about what happened?

FORDHAM: Well, thus far, David, not all that much, and we do have to bear in mind that he has been reported dead many times before, but AQAP made a video statement on online forums that they often use saying that their leader was killed in an American drone strike. It's tough to know what's happening, but in the past when Qaida says that a leader is dead, they are dead, and the group says that it has had a meeting and that it has appointed a new leader. There's been no American confirmation of this.

GREENE: Well, just describing him as number two in al-Qaida around the world, I mean, makes him sound incredibly important. I mean, how important is this man?

FORDHAM: He had been Osama bin Laden's secretary for a long time. He had fought in Afghanistan, and he was particularly respected in the world of extremist violence for uniting the al-Qaida branches in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. These groups are actually very fragmented, which can make them fragile. But his main importance in the eyes of the West was as a leader of a group that was particularly focused on what Osama bin Laden called the far enemy on the United States. He was the leader of a group that master-minded several attempted terror plots designed to hit the West. You'll remember the young man who attempted a plane bombing in 2009 with explosives in his underwear. And also the group was well-known for running for a time a slick English-language propaganda campaign.

GREENE: Well, you know, this happened - this drone strike - in Yemen, and we've heard a lot of news about that country. I mean, a very complicated Civil War, a Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes against rebel forces. I mean, is this death likely to change the dynamic on the ground in a country that the United States has been so worried about becoming really unstable?

FORDHAM: Right. In terms of Yemen's internal conflict, actually AQAP had recently got much more drawn into Yemeni dynamics on the ground. They were fighting against the rebel forces in Yemen, and they had teamed up with local tribes and smaller Islamist groups, and analysts say that Wuhayshi was crucial as a centralizing force for these diverse groups. So there may be, you know, some further fragmentation of the Islamist fighting groups in Yemen, but honestly the situation there is so chaotic that it's hard to see that his death alone could produce a very significant impact immediately.

GREENE: You know, I don't know if this is coincidence or not and maybe there's no way to totally tell with U.S. officials not saying so much, but another recent reported death of the African al-Qaida leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, I mean, could this be a moment of triumph in the global war against al-Qaida?

FORDHAM: Right. It's kind of interesting, isn't it? These are famous figures, people that the United States has been chasing for years and years and senior al-Qaida leaders, so this should be a moment of triumph in the fight against al-Qaida. But the way that things are these days and recent months and years, you know, there's so much chaos that we're just seeing a proliferation of threats - the self-named Islamic State, which is even more brutal and bloody and ambitious that al-Qaida was. So while once this would have seemed like a big moment, it's hard to see really that the world is a significantly safer or more tolerant place without Mokhtar Belmokhtar or Nasir al-Wuhayshi in it as things stand.

GREENE: That's NPR's Alice Fordham joining us from Baghdad. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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