Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula chronicled their achievements in 22 issues of an online newsletter and in propaganda films showing glowing light bulbs and whirring fans inside the homes of villagers who had never had power before. In one video, al-Qaida fighters are seen leaning ladders against power poles and triumphantly yelling “Allah Akbar,” or “God is great,” each time they connect a downed wire. They took time to write a detailed report, a kind of al-Qaida ‘case study’ on their occupation, which al-Wahashi dutifully enclosed with his letter, like a college professor giving a handout to a student.
They were pushed out in June of 2012, just as al-Qaida’s affiliate in North Africa succeeded in grabbing an Afghanistan-sized chunk of northern Mali, giving the terror network another chance to try their hand at governing. Adopting an avuncular, almost professorial tone, al-Wahishi, whose close relationship with Osama bin Laden allows him to speak with the authority of someone who studied at the knees of the master, advises Droukdel to publicize his good deeds. He advises them to do frequent PR, courting the media to change people’s perception of the terror brand.
“The world is waiting to see what you do next and how you go about managing the affairs of your state,” he writes. “Your enemies want to see you fail and they’re throwing up obstacles to prove to people that the mujahedeen are people that are only good for fighting and war, and have nothing to do with running countries.”
This preoccupation with al-Qaida’s image is clear throughout the letters. The former US ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, says the letters from al-Wahishi are in large part about the group’s perception of itself.
“These guys are no longer in the business of just trying to take out Western targets. They are in the business of establishing themselves as legit alternatives to governments that are not present in areas on a daily business,” says Seche, who served between 2007 and 2010. “I don’t think we should be fooled by this. …This is a velvet glove approach. It will come off.”
For many in Yemen, the glove came off on February 11, 2012, when a man accused of spying was arrested and sentenced to death by crucifixion. No amount of time or gradual application of Shariah could have prepared the population for what came next.
His body was left to rot, hanging from a power pole, a scene captured in a YouTube video, says Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, who identifies the incident as the turning point in public opinion.
Al-Wahishi does not acknowledge losing the support of the population, though he concedes his men were forced to retreat, as Yemen’s army, backed by the US military, regained control of the south. He explains that they pulled out after concluding that resisting would have both drained their resources, and caused high civilian casualties.
Al-Wahishi is blunt in laying out the cost of al-Qaida’s foray — and how it was financed.
“The control of these areas during one year cost us 500 martyrs, 700 wounded, 10 cases of hand or leg amputation and nearly $20 million,” he writes. “Most of the battle costs, if not all, were paid for through the spoils. Almost half the spoils came from hostages. Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.”
In conclusion, al-Wahishi warns Droukdel not to be drawn into a prolonged war. He effectively recommends the strategy al-Qaida used in both Yemen and Mali: Melt into the background while preparing to strike again: “Hold on to your previous bases in the mountains, forests and deserts and prepare other refuges for the worst-case scenario,” he says. “This is what we came to realize after our withdrawal.”
A tiny man with a pointy beard, al-Wahishi spent years serving as Osama bin Laden’s personal assistant, handling his day-to-day affairs before returning to his native Yemen, where he became emir of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2002. In 2009, the group attempted to send a suicide bomber with explosives sewn into his underwear onto a Detroit-bound flight. Recently, US officials intercepted a communication between al-Wahishi and al-Qaida supreme chief Ayman al-Zawahri, causing the US to shutter 19 embassies and consulates.