Jihadi Jitters: Al-Qaeda Sympathizers Panic As Leaders Killed Off

Yemenis inspect the rubble of destroyed houses in Bani Matar — AFP/Getty Images
Apr 17, 2015 at 3:53 PM ET

Counterterrorism strikes in Yemen which have successfully picked off leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are sowing seeds of panic and fear among jihadist sympathizers, an analysis by Vocativ has found.

Members of two ISIS and jihadi-backed forums this week erupted into accusations of espionage and western infiltration within AQAP following a strike that killed Ibrahim al-Arbaysh, the group’s spiritual leader. Critics, who took to the al-Manbar and Shumukh al-Islam forums, went so far as to question whether the terrorist network could provide basic levels of security for its forces. 

“AQAP can’t even protect its leader, how would they protect their soldiers?” sniped one anonymous militant.

Others on the forums were even more aggressive in their rebukes.

Translation: Why so many Sheikhs killed by drones? What does the security services of al-Qaeda do? This is dangerous. There are spies.”

The death of al-Arbaysh, announced by supporters on Tuesday, marked the latest al-Qaeda leader to be picked off in a string of strategic attacks around Yemen. A U.S. drone strike in February killed Harith al-Nazari, a top-ranking official who had hailed the attack on the French magazine Charlie-Hebdo’s headquarters the month before. In November, Shawki al-Badani, along with two other AQAP leaders, Turki al-Asiri and Nabil al-Zahab, died in separate anti-terrorism clashes throughout the country.

Given the rash of targeted killings, it is no surprise that some militants and jihadist supporters appear shaken, analysts say. “They have suffered some serious blows to their leadership in last few months,”says Charlie Winter, a Middle East researcher with the Quilliam Foundation in London. “It’s inevitable we’ll see this kind of paranoia.”

Patrick Skinner, a counter-terrorism expert with the Soufan Group, adds that the jihadi jitters underscore the efficacy of drone strikes, which are controversial. “This shows the power of the tactic,” he says. “They’ve effectively thrown these groups off balance. You want them to accuse each other of espionage, to tear themselves apart.”

AQAP has been called one of the most dangerous terrorist networks operating globally, according to U.S. officials. It has claimed responsibility for the Paris shooting attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. It has been behind several bomb attacks on civilian targets inside Yemen, and continues to hold foreigners hostage.

Still, even ardent supporters are starting to worry. 

Translation: AQAP leaders need to review their policy, and especially how to secure their senior [officials]. I fear to be surprised tomorrow from the death of Sheikh Abu Basir al-Wahishi [a leader with a $10 million bounty on his head].