Waziristan of Arabia

In what has turned out to be a rather prescient quip, the Arab journalist Abd al-Ilah Sha’i, who has conducted interviews for al-Jazeera with both Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Anwar al-Awlaqi and who is an occasional commentator on the jihadi forums, wrote last week on the Falluja forum that South Yemen was becoming the “Waziristan of the Arabian Peninsula.” This comment was made in connection with the US-supported airstrike on an alleged AQAP training camp in Abyan, Yemen, early on December 17, corresponding with the Islamic calendar’s New Year’s day (1 Muharram 1431).  Events that have unfolded since then have unfortunately only strengthened the aptness of the comparison.

This past Wednesday, December 23, Abu ‘Umayr Muhammad Ahmad bin Salih ‘Umayr al-‘Awlaqi, described variously as a “mid-level figure” in AQAP, or as the “al-Qa’ida leader for Shabwa Province,” appeared in an al-Jazeera video taken at a protest rally in Abyan, seeking to stoke the audience’s ire against “America and its lackeys”[1].  The following morning, a second US-backed airstrike against what were reportedly AQAP targets was carried out, this time in the Rafd valley of Shabwa Province.  Early reporting suggested  that Anwar al-Awlaqi and the top two leaders of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Sa’id al-Shihri, were among the thirty or more people killed in the strike, but local sources only mention five victims [1]; [2].

Aside from an urgent request for prayers for the mujahidin of AQAP, the only confirmation from jihadi sources about AQAP losses in the Shabwa strike came in a “tidings of martyrdom” post that appeared on the Shamikh and Falluja forums late on Friday.  This post confirmed what had already been reported in Arab news sources: that the Shabwa strike killed Abu ‘Umayr al-‘Awlaqi and two of his younger kinsmen.  This and many subsequent posts have refered to Wuhayshi and Anwar al-Awlaqi with the traditional invocation may God protect him, indicating that they survived the strike.

The first official communication from AQAP regarding these events was released via al-Fajr Media this morning on the forums, but the statement, entitled “A Message Regarding the Massacre of Muslims in the State of Abyan,” is about the December 17 Abyan strike and says nothing about the Shabwa attack.  The statement asserts that around fifty civilians were killed in the airstrikes; expresses condolences to the Bakazim tribe, identified as having suffered the worst losses; charges that a conspiracy between the governments of the US, Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is behind these current instances of a “war on Islam” in the Arabian Peninsula, which the statement links to broader conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Waziristan; says the strikes show up the Yemeni authorities as un-Islamic puppets of America; and vows that the blood of Muslims killed in the strikes will not go unavenged.

So far there has been little chatter on the forums regarding the news of a possible AQAP link in the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas, though Arabic-language news reports on these events have been posted to the forums.  Early this morning a regular on Falluja posted an open letter to Wuhayshi and AQAP’s media organization (the “Malahim Foundation”) urging them to capitalize on popular sentiment against the US and put out a short video on the strikes as soon as possible.  One can expect that the AQAP will be loath to pass up the opportunity presented by the week’s events to make Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi a household name worldwide.

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