Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zuwahiri.DEBKAfile Exclusive Report September 30, 2011, 10:23 PM (GMT+02:00)
The tip-off which enabled two American drone-borne Hellfire missiles to kill the US-born Anwar al-Awkali by locating his convoy in the Khashef in the Jawf province of Yemen, 140 kilometers east of the capital Sanaa, reached US intelligence as a result of a power struggle within Al Qaeda's leadership in Yemen.
Killed too was a second US-born al Qaeda operative.
DEBKAfile's counter-terror sources disclose that the internal strife which led to their deaths was sharpened by the recent arrival in Yemen of the new Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zuwahiri.
Exactly when he arrived and by what route is not known. Zuwahiri is thought to have come to check out Yemen as his next permanent base in view of his plans for transposing al Qaeda's center of operations from the Pakistani-Afghan arena to the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahara.
In North Africa, the Al Qaeda leader has learned that the Muslim extremists fighting in Libya's National Transitional Council ranks against Muammar Qaddafi have cemented their control not just of Tripoli, the capital, but also of Tobruk near the Egyptian border. DEBKAfile's counter-terror sources report that those Islamists, while pretending to defer to the NTC, in fact deny its officials access to the key Libyan cities under their fists. This is the first time that military forces linked to Al Qaeda have attained control of major Mediterranean ports and the use of a military airfield.
In Yemen, the situation is not very different from Libya. Al Qaeda has seized large parts of Abyan Province in the south and is fighting in sections of the Red Sea port of Aden.
Tuesday, Sept. 27, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber managed to maneuver a car loaded with explosives right up to the convoy of Yemeni defense minister Mohamed Nasser Ali. The minister survived the blast but several of his bodyguards did not.
If Yemen's central government in Sanaa continues to disintegrate, there will be nothing to stop Al Qaeda from grabbing all of Aden Port as well as Abyan and Hadramauth. Even without control of the big port city, the jihadis are within easy reach of anchorages along the Gulf of Aden coast with free access to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
Intelligence experts suspect Zuwahiri may have been spirited into Yemen through one of those anchorages from a boat which brought him from Pakistan. He arrived with big plans and new ambitions: One is to expand Al Qaeda's control of South Yemen in conformity with his quest for new strongholds with access to the sea. Its bastions in Afghanistan and Pakistani Waziristan were landlocked and without an airfield.
But over and above this strategic push, neither Zuwahiri nor Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by US commandos in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, ever completely trusted Anwar al Awkali.
Although US President Barack Obama lauded the death of "the leader of external operations" of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, Bin Laden and his successor never let him have this title – or even command of the Yemen sector - despite his pleas. Neither was ready to countenance an American whom they didn't entirely trust in a position of high command in their organization
Awkali made his name in the West as a skilled and powerful spokesman for al Qaeda's cause. He never distinguished himself as an operational commander. Therefore, our counter-terror experts have always been wary of attributing to him personally the failed attempt to blow up a US airliner on Christmas 2009 and the planting of a bomb aboard a cargo plane in October 2010.
He was certainly linked to the Palestinian US Major Nidal Malik Hassan's murder of 13 US military and security personnel at Ford Hood in November 2009, although more likely by inspiration than specific directives.
The second American who died in the US drone-borne missile strike Friday was Samir Khan, editor of Al Qaeda's English-language Inspire Magazine.
From the point of view of the West, Al Qaeda has lost two senior operatives. But to hardline Zuwahiri, Al Qaeda in Yemen has been purged of its American module. Therefore, while the US justly celebrates a major victory in its war on the Islamist terrorist organization, its new leader most probably decided to sacrifice his two American assets for the sake of tightening the ranks of AQAP and drawing a denser curtain of secrecy than ever before over his next steps.