’s most powerful franchise has announced the death of its leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, in a US air strike in , the latest blow to the global jihadi organisation.
The killing of Wuhayshi, nicknamed Abu Basir and one of ’s most charismatic leaders, was confirmed in a video statement by in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The group, which is engaged in fierce fighting in with domestic opponents, is under relentless pressure from US drone strikes. Its influence appears to be waning in terms of global jihad with the advances of its rival Islamic State.
Related: How Isis crippled | Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman, Mustafa Khalili
“Our Islamic nation, this was one of your champions and leaders,” said AQAP official Khaled Batarfi in the statement, which said Wuhayshi was killed along with two other militants. “In our time … the leaders of jihad have been killed. But the blood of these leaders has only increased the insistence on jihad.”
Arab media reports earlier said three suspected members were killed on 9 June in an apparent US drone strike in Mukalla, a south-eastern port city in .
Batarfi said Qassim al-Raimi, nicknamed Abu Hurayra and a military commander in AQAP, was elected by the group’s leadership council to succeed Wuhayshi. He said many of the council members were able to meet and pledge allegiance to the new leader, despite security concerns and the fact the group was fighting on 11 fronts with Houthi rebels and their allies in .
Wuhayshi, once a fighter in Afghanistan, accompanied Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora as thei fled the US invasion in 2001, and was his secretary and close aide. He has been involved in fighting the Americans since the 1990s. After spending time in prison in , he escaped and helped found AQAP in 2009, rising to the leadership of the group.
Under Wuhayshi, the group helped maintain a semblance of influence for ’s central leadership by refusing to pledge allegiance to the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, when he declared the founding of a caliphate last year.
In a video released in November, AQAP’s chief cleric, Harith al-Nadhari, rejected the caliphate declaration and renewed the group’s allegiance to and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urging an end to the discord between the jihadi franchises.
Washington considers AQAP a threat and has pursued a policy of drone strikes against the group in even as the country descended into chaos during a Saudi-led air campaign to stem the advance of Houthi rebels, who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam and who seized the capital, Sana’a, last year. The violence has allowed the group to advance in ’s eastern provinces. AQAP considers the Houthis apostates.
AQAP has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks against western targets. The gunmen who carried out the massacre at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January are thought to have trained with the group, and AQAP said it was responsible for a failed attempt to bomb a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day 2009, involving the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallib.
Wuhayshi was born on 1 October 1976 and was designated Zawahiri’s second-in-command in 2013. The US had offered a bounty of up to $10m for information leading to his arrest, putting him in the same echelon as IBaghdadi and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, who is believed to be based in Pakistan.
Wuhayshi’s last known major video release was in the spring of 2014, showing him along with AQAP militants who had broken out of prison in Sana’a. He threatened in the video to retaliate against the US, saying had to “remove the cross, the bearer of the cross, America”.
The defiance of the hundreds of AQAP members gathered in the video raised concerns that the group was growing in strength despite continuing US drone strikes.
This year AQAP denied it was involved in two suicide bombings in Houthi mosques in that were claimed by Isis, reflecting the attempts by the group to distance itself from its more extreme jihadi rival.
Reports of Wuhayshi’s death emerged as representatives of the Houthi rebels arrived in Geneva for UN-brokered talks aimed at finding a resolution to the ongoing crisis in and the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign, which has lasted two and a half months.
A militant group in Libya appeared to deny reports that a US strike had killed a jihadi leader linked to . Libya’s recognised government had claimed that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, charged by the US with leading a deadly attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013, was killed in an American air strike over the weekend. The US confirmed it had targeted Belmokhtar, but did not confirm his death.
The Ansar al-Sharia militant group released a statement on Twitter that did not include a name resembling Belmokhtar’s on a list of seven people it said had died in the attack.
“While we eulogise these heroes … we deny the killing of any other personalities besides those whom we have named who are sons of this land [Libya],” the statement said.
Reuters, which reported the statement, said it could not verify its authenticity.