By Barbara Starr
In what may be a disturbing sign of al Qaeda’s resurgence, U.S. intelligence believes the Yemeni head of its affiliate in the Arabian peninsula is now the overall terror organization’s No. 2 leader.
A U.S. official with access to the latest intelligence said that Nasir al Wuhayshi was appointed over the past few weeks by al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is widely thought by the Obama administration to be behind the latest terror threat that prompted the closure this week of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and North Africa.
The official declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information. The source also would not say how specifically Wuhayshi’s appointment may be related to the new developments.
But Wuhayshi’s elevation would almost certainly have required communication between his organization and “al Qaeda Central.”
Given al Qaeda’s track record, those exchanges would most likely have involved couriers travelling back and forth between Yemen and Pakistan, where Zawahiri is presumed to be hiding.
An intercepted message among al Qaeda senior operatives in recent days led to the U.S. action involving its embassies and consulates, CNN has learned.
CNN first reported Wuhayshi’s new role last week when Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation analyst, said the appointment had occurred. Jones called it “unprecedented because he's living in Yemen, he's not living in Pakistan."
The appointment is not known to have been made public by al Qaeda.
The appointment would effectively thrust Wuhayshi, a Yemeni national, into the second-ranking position in the group’s global network, a position previously held by the Libyan Abu Yahya al Libi before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012, according to CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.
It would also provide a broader foundation to al Qaeda’s top leadership at a time when its center of gravity has shifted from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the Arab world.
And it would potentially allow the group to re-tap fundraising opportunities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where Wuhayshi is more popular than Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s less charismatic and sometimes divisive Egyptian leader, Cruickshank said.