JUNE 15, 2015
No. 2 Qaeda Leader May Have Died in U.S. Airstrike in Yemen
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON -- Yemeni officials and extremists reported on Monday that the leader of Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate and recently the second-ranking official of the global terror network, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, had been killed in an American drone strike. American officials said they could not confirm the reports but were investigating.
Mr. Wuhayshi, 38, had led Qaeda operations in Yemen since 2002 and built Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula into what counterterrorism officials considered the most dangerous group targeting the United States homeland, though all of its attacks failed. The group was responsible for dispatching two underwear bombers -- one bomb fizzled, and the other bomber was a double agent -- to blow up airliners over American soil, and for planting explosives in printer cartridges aboard two commercial cargo planes bound for Chicago.
It was the second time in two days that the fate of a militant leader targeted in an American strike was uncertain. Over the weekend, American F-15s carried out an airstrike in Libya on Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leading Algerian terrorist, but by Monday his death remained very much in doubt.
The uncertainty about whether Mr. Wuhayshi and Mr. Belmokhtar were dead underscored a recurring lesson from the Obama administration's campaign of targeted killing of suspected terrorists: Even with multiple sources of intelligence, it is hard to be sure whom the missiles have hit in remote areas thousands of miles from the United States.
And although American counterterrorism officials would consider the deaths of the two men a major victory, the strikes in both countries took place as anti-American extremists are advancing and government authority is dissolving.
In Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Sunni extremist group, has been strengthened by the support of Sunni tribesmen as much of the country has been taken over by a Shiite militia known as the Houthis. Qaeda militants now control more territory than at any time since 2012.
In Libya, factional fighting since the ouster and death in 2011 of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime dictator, has permitted multiple militant groups to seize territory and recruit supporters, including affiliates of both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
"The tactical, whack-a-mole approach is not having the desired effect," said Micah Zenko, who studies counterterrorism policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
There was no official confirmation of Mr. Wuhayshi's death from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Supporters expressed condolences on social media, while others fretted that the group faced grave internal dangers, despite its capture of territory in recent months, as Al Qaeda leaders were killed, one by one.
"Al Qaeda, to where?" one supporter wrote on Twitter, lamenting that the group had become a "hotbed of intelligence."
There were reasons to be cautious. The death of Mr. Belmokhtar, who planned an attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013 in which 38 foreign workers died, has been reported several times over the years. And militants on Twitter announced that Mr. Wuhayshi had been replaced by the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's military commander, Qassim al-Raymi. Mr. Raymi's death was widely, and inaccurately, reported in a 2010 strike.
Dirk Vandewalle, an expert on Libya at Dartmouth, said that strikes were no substitute for a more lasting strategy in Libya, where the breakdown of authority had contributed to a migration crisis as impoverished Africans try to reach Europe.
"What we have in Libya is utter chaos," Mr. Vandewalle said. "The American strike shows that we're still relying on ad hoc measures rather than consistent policies along with the Europeans."
But Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, praised the decision to strike at militants in Libya.
"You can't defeat ISIS without taking on the Libya problem," he said, noting that as Islamic State extremists come under pressure in Syria and Iraq, they must be deprived of a haven in Libya.
"If we don't act in Libya, we'll see it go down a rat hole," Mr. Nunes said. "And if that happens, it could spread to Tunisia and, God forbid, to Egypt."
In Yemen, grisly photographs in a local newspaper showed the aftermath of the drone strike last Tuesday that might have killed Mr. Wuhayshi. Witnesses told the newspaper that a drone had fired two missiles, killing three Al Qaeda members who had gathered in a public area near the beach.
The photographs showed a small crater on a stone plaza, overlooking the ocean. Another showed what appeared to be a bloodied torso, on a stretch of beach. The newspaper said that members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula arrived after the strike, asked bystanders to leave the area and collected the bodies.
On Monday, Pentagon officials said they believed, though they could not be certain, that the weekend strike in Libya had killed Mr. Belmokhtar. Col. Steven H. Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military was "still conducting the post-strike assessment to determine whether or not our intended target was eliminated."
A militia leader in Ajdabiya, a coastal town in the country's northeast where the strike took place and a public funeral was held on Monday, said it was impossible to be sure who had been killed.
The bodies of at least eight of the dead were charred beyond recognition, said the militia leader, who asked not to be identified for his own safety. Some militants survived the strike and were taken to a hospital, where fighters for a local branch of the Ansar al-Shariah Islamist group skirmished with local guards and took their wounded away about 11 a.m. on Monday, he said.
There are rumors of imminent reprisals against those suspected of helping the Americans, the militia leader said.
Meanwhile, Al Akhbar, a Mauritanian website that has previously published Mr. Belmokhtar's messages, including his claim of responsibility after the 2013 attack on the gas plant, published an article on Monday saying that six of Mr. Belmokhtar's men were killed in the weekend strike.
It did not list Mr. Belmokhtar among the dead.
The article, written in French, said that the strike hit a garden inside Ajdabiya around 2 a.m. local time on Saturday. It was inside this garden that Mr. Belmokhtar was presiding over a meeting of Qaeda members, it said.
An individual associated with the Shabab, Al Qaeda's East African branch, also denied that Mr. Belmokhtar had died. "Heard from two AQ bros that he's alive, and 6 of the mujahedeen have been killed," he wrote in a private message.
Reporting was contributed by Rukmini Callimachi from New York; David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo; Suliman Ali Zway from Tripoli, Libya; Kareem Fahim from Baghdad; and Shuaib Almosawa from Sana, Yemen.