The killing of the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Nasir al-Wuhayshi in a US drone attack in Yemen on Monday was in reality a targeted political assassination, although packaged as the latest act in Washington’s relentless war against terrorists.

The Aj Jazeera has exposed that the AQAP’s military commander Qassim al-Raymi who has been elevated as the new leader of the group after Wuhayshi’s murder has a colorful past. It has come to light that Raymi used to work for the intelligence agency of the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which of course had enjoyed the backing of Saudi Arabia and the US.

Al Jazeera cites Raymi as “a creation of Yemen’s National Security Bureau.” Curiously, while the US drone attacks eviscerated practically the entire AQAP leadership through the recent years, Raymi “miraculously survived Yemeni security force raids as well as cruise missile strikes… Raymi is part of a sinister double-game that has shielded him from capture and drone targeting all these years… Was Wuhayshi’s killing the ultimate power play?”

Nasir al-Wuhayshi
Nasir al-Wuhayshi

All fingers point toward the US at one masterly stroke having cleared the deck for a change of leadership in the AQAP in Yemen, to bring in a trusted “asset” as the new helmsman of the al-Qaeda outfit. So, what is the “power play” that lies ahead?

Indeed, it is well-known that the AQAP currently enjoys immunity from the ongoing Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, which are exclusively focused on the Iran-backed Houthi militia. In fact, the AQAP has been a lucky bloke all along, since it continued to thrive all through the intervention by the US Special Forces in Yemen in the recent years.

Curiously, the ongoing Saudi war on Yemen is coordinated with the US military and the two countries recently established a “joint coordination planning cell” in Riyadh to wage the war. However, the intriguing part is that neither Saudi Arabia nor the US has shown any serious interest in conducting attacks against the AQAP.

How do we explain this riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?

The logical conclusion can only be that the AQAP in Yemen has been all along regarded as a “strategic asset” by Saudi Arabia and the US that would have its uses as an ally or geopolitical tool to prevent Iran-backed Houthis from ever controlling Yemen. Yemen is a highly strategic real estate situated at the entrance to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait linking the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and is one of the most active and vital shipping lanes in the world.

But then, this forms apart of the “big picture”, too. The al-Qaeda is lately undergoing plastic surgery and is getting ready to reappear in a brand new appearance on the world stage. To be sure, the equations between the al-Qaeda on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the US on the other hand are evolving to a qualitatively new level. In sum, al-Qaeda is one a comeback trail, roaring back into big business as in the halcyon days in the eighties.

The well-known expert on terrorism, Ahmed Rashid wrote a clever piece recently arguing that it is about time that al-Qaeda is openly resurrected, given respectability and adopted as a collaborator by the US and its Arab allies.

Writing in the New York Review of Books in a piece captioned “Why We Need al-Qaeda”, Rashid argues:

The truth is that al-Qaeda has evolved in profound ways since the death 
of Osama bin Laden and the emergence of ISIS… ISIS can now claim to have ground forces in 
more than a dozen countries… Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is much
 depleted. However, it still has a major presence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen 
through its affiliates, and it continues to inspire Afghan, Central Asian, and 
Pakistani militants… It also has 
increasingly set itself apart from ISIS in strategy and aims on battlefields in 
both Syria and Yemen. So the 
question has become urgent: if al-Qaeda is changing, what is it 
changing to? Is it for the better or the worse? And what part might it have in 
the crucial confrontation with ISIS?

Rashid takes note of the care that the regional Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular, have taken to “openly avoid bombing or attacking” al-Nusra (al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria) and AQAP (in Yemen) and in providing both with financial support and weapons. He explains,

That is because both groups have now declared aims that are shared by the Arab states. Al-Nusra has set as its primary objectives toppling the Syrian regime of Bashar 
al-Assad, defeating the pro-Iran Hezbollah militia, and eliminating Iranian 
support for Assad. AQAP, meanwhile, is resisting the Houthi uprising and also
 wants to eliminate Iranian influence in Yemen. So al-Nusra and AQAP have become allies and 
not enemies of the Arab states.

Indeed, al-Nusra has made overtures to the US recently by vowing not to attack targets in the West and by demonstrating a new willingness to cooperate with other anti-Assad groups. Al-Nusra has also replaced its earlier plans of building a caliphate with a novel ideology of “nationalist jihadism”, apart from edging away from the grotesque version of the Islamic law to which they had subscribed earlier.

By coincidence, the AQAP in Yemen is also on a similar image-building exercise that would open the door to the fascinating avenue of collaborating with Saudi Arabia and the Yemen in the common cause of rolling back the tide of Iranian influence.

Above all, there have been reports that al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri has issued a directive not to attack US targets and to concentrate on the Middle East.

The plastic surgeon is doing a splendid job, isn’t it?

Putting together all these exciting changes in the visage of the al-Qaeda, Rashid felt encouraged to write,

“With Arab money and persuasion, both al-Nusra and AQAP are gaining capacity for local governance and state building. However
 distasteful the jihadist ideology behind both groups, these efforts suggest an
 outcome that may be considerably less threatening than that of the Islamic State… In the months ahead, we should not be surprised if formal talks between al-Qaeda and these Arab states begin.”

Rashid’s piece presents a powerful argument for the US to be at the table when these “formal talks” commence.

However, it is a deeply-flawed assessment primarily because it is predicated on the wrong assumption that the US and its key Arab allies are not together in the business of consorting with a refitted al-Qaeda. The US and Saudi Arabia have always been conjoined at the hips in the gory business of manipulating militant Islamist groups, starting from the Afghan jihad in the eighties.

Rashid does not comprehend that the real use of al-Qaeda affiliates is not in the Middle East theatre as much as in Central Asia where the US is robustly pushing its containment strategy against Russia and China. The Islamic State is already doing a fairly good job becoming a permanent challenge to Iran, getting it bogged down in a proxy war. What more can al-Qaeda do in the Middle East? It is becoming an uphill task for al-Qaeda to match the IS in sheer “charisma” on the Arab street. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan fears from the IS’ growing appeal to its cadres.

On the other hand, it is the Central Asian militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that are closely affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Surprisingly, Rashid who has written a book or two on Central Asia overlooks that if al-Qaeda is being refurbished today to be ushered in shortly as a legitimate movement in the world of political Islam, it can only be in anticipation of a role that it will be called upon to play in a near future in the steppes of Central Asia, a far bigger role than its hugely successful enterprise in the eighties in Afghanistan.

Make no mistake, the al-Qaeda’s “base camp” is still the AfPak region. The regional backdrop cannot be overlooked, either – Pakistan is moving into the orbit of China lately and is being inducted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while the nascent signs have appeared of a regional initiative  (again, involving China in a pivotal role) to stabilize Afghanistan, which of course could only lead to the vacation of the US and NATO military presence in that country.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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