The White House is touting the deaths of top al Qaeda officials this week as evidence that its counterterrorism strategy is working, even in Yemen and Libya, where U.S. personnel have been withdrawn amid deteriorating security. But it is unclear whether the “whack-a-mole” strike campaign has actually set back the hydra-headed terrorist network.
On Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price announced that Nasir al Wahishi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, had been killed in Yemen. Price said Wahishi oversaw plots against the U.S. and caused the deaths of Yemenis and Americans, “but—through the concerted efforts of our counterterrorism professionals—we were able to thwart many of his attack plans.”
Price called Wahishi’s death “a major blow to AQAP, al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous affiliate, and to al-Qa’ida more broadly” and said it “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
Price’s statement confirmed the death — not U.S. responsibility for it. But Yemeni officials quoted by the Associated Press said that Wahishi was killed in a U.S. strike last week in southern Yemen. Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch also confirmed the death and quickly named a replacement: Qassim al Raimi, AQAP’s senior military commander.
The announcement comes just days after Pentagon officials confirmed that a Saturday night strike by F-15s in Libya was meant to kill Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom they dubbed the “operational leader” of an al Qaeda-associated group in northwest Africa. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Belmokhtar led the 2013 attacks at a gas complex in Algeria that killed 38 people, including three Americans.
Warren said on Tuesday he could not confirm that Belmokhtar was dead. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and other militant groups in Libya released a list of those killed in the U.S. strike; it didn’t include Belmokhtar.
Critics say the difficulty of assessing the results of such strikes, along with terror groups’ apparent ability to recover quickly from them, underscore the limited effectiveness of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Others note that even if the strikes have undercut al Qaeda, other militant groups such as the Islamic State have filled the vacuum. In Yemen, the Islamic State has gained recruits as Shia rebels known as Houthis are battling separatists, Sunni fighters and backers of ousted President Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour. And in recent weeks, the Islamic State has gained ground in Libya, where militant groups continue to battle each other and two governments for control of the country.
“The tactical, whack-a-mole approach is not having the desired effect,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko told The New York Times.
The White House and Pentagon are touting the stepped-up campaign of airstrikes against al Qaeda leaders, particularly in the wake of President Obama’s much-cited comment that “We don’t yet have a complete strategy” for defeating ISIS. “The President has been clear that terrorists who threaten the United States will not find safe haven in any corner of the globe,” Price said.
The administration argues the strikes prove the U.S. can continue to conduct counterterrorism operations even when there are no Americans on the ground, as in Yemen, where the U.S. withdrew the last of its personnel in March. “We still have a global reach,” Warren told reporters Tuesday. “We still retain the ability to find and kill terrorists anywhere they’re hiding in the world.”
Administration officials also say the assassinations have hurt al Qaeda’s ability to operate by taking experienced fighters off the battlefield and disrupting its command structure. “We have been patient, we have been focused and this week we have seen success across a broad spectrum of our anti-terror operations,” Warren told reporters Tuesday before the NSC announcement. “We have reports unconfirmed, reports by al Qaeda, that their leader’s dead in Yemen. We have a targeted airstrike against Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Libya. We have advances across the Syrian-Turkish border in Syria. And we have continued evidence of a continued gain of momentum of our friendly forces in [Iraq.]”
But Warren seemed to struggle when asked about the impact of such assassinations. “Any time an organization loses its leader, that organization is disrupted. In some cases the disruptions are longer than in other cases, but there’s always a disruption,” he said. “It causes this enemy organization to have to reorganize, it introduces a leader which could potentially create confusion among the ranks, and overall it degrades that organization’s ability to conduct their operations. During reorganizations, there’s vulnerability.”
Of AQAP’s recently promoted leader, Warren said, “He will now have to live in even more fear because we will find him and we will kill him.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, praised the announcements Tuesday, noting that al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri is increasingly relying on a smaller group of lieutenants as ISIS challenges his group for territory and recruits.
“In the case of top leadership like al-Wuhayshi, that interruption in organizational planning is all the more profound,” Schiff said. But he noted the steady flow of fighters into ISIS. “Counterterrorism operations of the type reported to have taken place here must always be considered as only one element in a multi-pronged approach that includes building capacities of local and regional authorities, countering the flow of resources to terrorists, and working with partners in the Islamic world to defeat the ideology that attracts new recruits to replenish the ranks of those removed from the battlefield.”
Marcus Weisgerber contributed reporting.