WASHINGTON – When the Sept. 11, 2001, plot was hatched, Nasser al-Wahishi was Osama bin Laden’s personal assistant in Afghanistan. Half a decade later, he became the architect of the al-Qaida Yemeni affiliate that experts say poses the biggest terrorist threat to the United States.
The man at the heart of a terrorism alert that has shut down U.S. embassies in the Muslim world and elsewhere has kept a strikingly low profile in the West. But that is likely to change, experts say, as al-Wahishi uses his growing stature to urge the loose network of cells that ascribe to al-Qaida’s ideology to place greater emphasis on planning attacks on the West rather than focusing on domestic enemies.
U.S. officials have stressed that much of al-Qaida has been severely weakened by a prolonged campaign of drone strikes. In Yemen, those attacks killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric whose propaganda inspired other jihadists, in 2011, as well as al-Wahishi’s deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri, this year.
Still, the haste with which U.S. officials have responded to the latest threat, evacuating diplomats and aid workers from Yemen aboard military aircraft, underscores how menacing al-Wahishi’s group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has become.
“He is among the most important individuals in terms of strategy,” said Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence, a group that tracks extremist organizations. “Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula very quickly became one of the most prominent affiliates.”
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal citing an anonymous American official, al-Wahishi masterminded the attack plan that triggered the U.S. security alert. Previous reports said he was ordered to go on the offensive by al-Qaida’s supreme leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, but the official said that an intercepted communication had shown that al-Zawahiri merely approved an operation that had been drawn up in Yemen. U.S. officials have not said what they think the targets were.
Al-Wahishi, 36, who was born and raised in central Yemen, was among the young men of his generation who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1990s, inspired by bin Laden’s dogmatic ideology and a desire to restore Palestinian control over territory that now includes Israel.
After the 9/11 attacks, as the U.S. military started bombing al-Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan, al-Wahishi, also known as Abu Baseer, fled to Iran.
Officials in Iran detained al-Wahishi and deported him to his native Yemen weeks later.
In February 2006, he was among 23 al-Qaida members who broke out of a prison in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, crawling through a tunnel that led to a mosque. The escapees included Jamal Badawi, the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.
Al-Wahishi spent his first few years on the run rekindling old ties and taking stock of the stunning evolution of al-Qaida.
The group’s core leadership in Pakistan was being targeted by U.S. drones and had largely lost the ability to plot transnational attacks. The Iraq cell had mushroomed into a powerful insurgency. The al-Qaida group in Algeria remained viable, as did an offshoot in Somalia.
In November 2008, al-Zawahri, then al-Qaida’s deputy leader, issued a video statement in which he gave an important nod to al-Wahishi, who had attracted relatively little attention as he built an al-Qaida franchise. And in January 2009, al-Wahishi formally announced the creation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, stressing that the group had a solid leadership structure.
As his group gained strength, al-Wahishi, who had previously called on devout Muslims to travel to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, shifted strategy. Instead of carrying out jihad abroad, he said, fighters should focus on killing foreigners in Yemen. “It is shameful to go to Baghdad and Kabul while the infidel desecrates our land, which they are not permitted to enter,” he said in January 2009.
Al-Wahishi’s group attracted sophisticated bomb makers, most notably Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi credited with designing the “underwear bomb” that nearly downed a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas 2009.
The group also attracted two Americans. The most prominent was al-Awlaki, a former imam who was a source of inspiration to others in the West, including U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
The other, Samir Khan, was the editor of the group’s English-language magazine Inspire, al-Qaida’s most accessible propaganda tool for English speakers. Khan was killed alongside al-Awlaki in the 2011 drone strike.