A member of a so-called al Qaeda “affiliate” group has for the first time ascended to a leadership position in the terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden, CIA Director John Brennan said this week.
In remarks on Tuesday to the Council on Foreign Relations that went unnoticed amid the hubbub over an escalating feud between the agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said that the new No. 2 is Nasir Abdel Karim al-Wuhayshi, head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Wuhayshi, a 40ish Yemeni who had been either the "personal secretary" or "personal assistant" to bin Laden at the time of the 9-11 attacks, was mentioned as a leading candidate for the long-vacant post in an NBC News report last month on the secret al Qaeda search for a second-in-command.
Word that Wuhayshi had gotten the job and become potential successor to Ayman al-Zawahri came when Brennan responded to a question about the changing nature of Islamic extremism at the Washington, D.C., event, which was hosted by Andrea Mitchell.
"There’s al Qaeda core, that -- you know, Bin Laden and Zawahiri and those that are around … al Qaeda in South Asia,” he said. “(Then) there are those groups, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that are clearly affiliated. The head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Wuhayshi, is the No. 2 in al Qaeda core and al Qaeda Central."
U.S. officials confirmed Friday that Wuhayshi had indeed been elevated by al Qaeda’s Mujahideen Shura (or “consultative council”).
AQAP is regarded as the most violent al Qaeda affiliate and most likely to carry out an attack on the West. It has attempted numerous bombings, none of which have been successful.
Its most famous failure was the attempt by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate a bomb onboard a jetliner as it descended over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.
Wuhayshi is not considered to be a charismatic leader and was never promoted by al-Shahab, the al Qaeda propaganda wing, which often signals upcoming promotions with its selective praise.
But Wuhayshi won admirers after he and 22 other captives escaped from a maximum security prison in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in February 2006. He had been captured by Iran's Revolutionary Guard not long after 9-11 and turned over to Yemeni authorities.
Wuhayshi is believed to be nearly 20 years younger than the 62-year-old Zawahri, who by his count has been targeted by the U.S. on at least four occasions.
The No. 2 post in al Qaeda had been vacant since August 2011, when a U.S, drone attack killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.
Aityah, as he was known, was bin Laden's chief of staff when Navy SEAL killed the al Qaeda leader in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
He was one of six potential successors to Zawahri who hav been killed in drone attacks in the past two years, according to an NBC analysis.
Not everyone thinks the appointment of Wuhayshi as the new No. 2 is all that significant, given the main organization’s diminished profile and capabilities.
"Al Qaeda is at the most moribund point in its history," said Michael Leiter, the former director of the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center and now a counterterrorism consultant to NBC News. "It's nothing like the centrally led organization of 2001 or even 2010.”