A death trap for al Qaeda leaders?

Much attention is being devoted to analyzing the significance of the death of Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the No. 2 leader for al Qaeda globally, in a reported U.S. drone strike last week.

After all, he was the organization’s second-ranking leader and headed the al Qaeda affiliate that has been consistently portrayed as the one that poses the greatest threat to the United States — even more dangerous than ISIS, the breakaway al Qaeda affiliate and center of media focus, according to former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell.

That view was shared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which tweeted: “We continue to assess that AQAP remains the al-Qa’ida affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States” as the President laid out his justification for strikes on ISIS.

Al-Wuhayshi had the personal history to back up his claim as leader of the most threatening terrorist group. He was Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary and body guard and was with the core al Qaeda leadership as it fled Afghanistan. He spent time in a Yemeni prison before escaping and becoming the leader of the newly formed AQAP.

Yet as interesting as the man is the place where he was reportedly killed. The strike occurred in Al Mukalla, a Yemeni port in the province of Hadramaut and the fifth-largest city in Yemen.

AQAP seized Al Mukalla in early April amid the chaos precipitated by Houthi rebel advances. AQAP’s seizure of the city prompted extensive worry regarding the group’s resurgence buoyed by the conflict.

For example, The New York Times ran an article headlined “War in Yemen Is Allowing Qaeda Group to Expand,” quoting Jamal Benomar, a U.N. diplomat who had been tasked with achieving political reconciliation in the country, as saying, “For the first time, al Qaeda is building a strategic alliance with the tribes,” and, “It is a strengthened and dangerous al Qaeda. This is what worries everybody.”

While it is clear that AQAP has made great strides, there is another story in Al Mukalla — a story of the constraints on jihadist power. Since AQAP seized the city, the United States conducted five drone strikes in the city’s vicinity, according to data collected by New America. That constitutes nearly half of the strikes the United States has conducted in Yemen so far in 2015.

Those five strikes have ripped holes in AQAP’s leadership. Four AQAP leaders have been killed in Al Mukalla since the group seized the city. Al-Wuhayshi was reportedly killed in Al Mukalla on Friday. On April 22, a drone strike killed Muhannad Ghallab, a 35-year-old Egyptian who acted as an AQAP spokesman in the city.

Also in April, Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi, the senior AQAP commander who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris by the Kouachi brothers, was killed by drone strike in Al Mukalla. And on April 13, a drone strike killed Ibrahim al Rubeish, a 35-year-old Saudi and former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who served as a top spokesman and ideologue for the group.

By taking Al Mukalla, AQAP gained much but also placed its leadership in a death trap. The deaths reveal the risks jihadist terrorist groups take by seizing territory. Even ISIS, the group that has made the most dramatic territorial gains when it conducted a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, faced a similar challenge when its advances opened its forces up to the devastating effect of American air power.

Of course, leadership deaths do not necessarily mean the end of an organization, and AQAP may still benefit overall from seizing the city. Though the subject of much debate, various studies have found leadership decapitation to have at most a limited effect on a terrorist group’s fortunes.

Other recent research suggests that decapitation can lead to more, and less selective, violence on the part of terrorist groups. Moreover, while air power is great at stopping advances, and also quite effective in killing selected leaders, it has a poor record in dislodging terrorist groups from territory they’ve seized.

Despite these cautions, the recent wave of leadership deaths in Al Mukalla suggests there are real constraints on a group’s ability to take advantage of instability and seize territory, even in a situation as chaotic as the war raging in Yemen.

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