There has been a lot of chatter in intelligence and academic circles about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri and his value to AQAP. The disclosure last week of a thwarted AQAP plot to attack U.S. airliners using an improved version of an "underwear bomb" used in the December 2009 attempted attack aboard a commercial airplane and the disclosure of the U.S. government's easing of the rules of engagement for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in Yemen played into these discussions. People are debating how al-Asiri's death would affect the organization. A similar debate undoubtedly will erupt if AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahayshi is captured or killed.
AQAP has claimed that al-Asiri trained others in bombmaking, and the claim makes sense. Furthermore, other AQAP members have received training in constructing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while training and fighting in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This means that al-Asiri is not the only person within the group who can construct an IED. However, he has demonstrated creativity and imagination. His devices consistently have been able to circumvent existing security measures, even if they have not always functioned as intended. We believe this ingenuity and imagination make al-Asiri not merely a bombmaker, but an exceptional bombmaker.
Likewise, al-Wahayshi is one of hundreds -- if not thousands -- of men currently associated with AQAP. He has several deputies and numerous tactical field commanders in various parts of Yemen. Jihadists have had a presence in Yemen for decades, and after the collapse of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, numerous Saudi migrants fleeing the Saudi government augmented this presence. However, al-Wahayshi played a singular role in pulling these disparate jihadist elements together to form a unified and cohesive militant organization that has been involved not only in several transnational terrorist attacks but also in fighting an insurgency that has succeeded in capturing and controlling large areas of territory. He is an exceptional leader.