SANAA, Yemen — The Yemeni government reported the death Thursday of a top leader of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who died as a result of wounds suffered in a November “counter-terrorism operation” in the northern province of Saada.
Deputy Emir Saeed al Shihri was the highest-ranking Saudi member of the group. Al Qaida-linked militants buried him in an undisclosed location, according to the government.
“His death, if true, would not destroy the capabilities of the organization, but it would be the biggest blow to AQAP in more than three years of U.S. bombing raids,” said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge,” a recent book on Yemen and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
According to U.S. government documents, after traveling to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and training with militants in a camp north of Kabul, Shihri was captured in December 2001 while attempting to cross the border into Pakistan. He was transferred eventually to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay and imprisoned for six years.
He then was transferred to the custody of his home country, which placed him in a “jihadi rehabilitation program.” But after his release in 2008, Shihri traveled south to Yemen to rejoin the fight.
Months after being declared rehabilitated, Shihri resurfaced in a video with Nasir al Wuhayshi, a fellow Afghanistan veteran who heads al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In the video, they announced the group’s formation as a merger of al Qaida’s Saudi and Yemeni branches.
Shihri is thought to have supervised the group’s Saudi operatives in addition to playing a key role in operations in Yemen and abroad. He allegedly took part in planning a 2009 assassination attempt on Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, a 2008 bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and, according to the Yemeni government, oversaw the group’s military operations in the southern Abyan province.
Fighters linked to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have continued to launch attacks in Abyan on Yemeni troops since abandoning their former strongholds in the province last June. Shihri also played a key role in liaising with funders and potential recruits in Saudi Arabia.
His death has been reported erroneously multiple times – most recently, he defiantly reappeared via an audio statement after being reported killed last September – and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula hasn’t yet released a statement confirming his death. In contrast to the September report, however, state-owned media in Saudi Arabia have reported Shihri’s death, quoting family members of the militant leader.
Shihri’s death would make him the highest-ranked figure in al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to have been killed since the group formed. The Yemeni government’s announcement comes, however, in the midst of an uptick in the intensity of its battle against the terrorist organization.
The past week has seen nearly daily reports of suspected American airstrikes against terrorist targets in four Yemeni provinces, drawing increased attention to the controversial practice. Many Yemenis see the strikes as a breach of the country’s sovereignty and a violation of the rule of law.
Simultaneously, the Yemeni military has mobilized in preparation for a possible offensive against militants linked to Shihri’s group who currently are based in the central province of al Beidah.
With militants able to find refuge and Wuhayshi and other key terrorist figures still at large, Shihri’s death by no means would render a fatal blow. Still, analysts said, the death of the group’s deputy leader would mark one of the most significant setbacks it’s suffered in years.
“He has been a driving force in the organization and was a key player in developing the 2009 bomb attempt that targeted Mohammed bin Nayef, and which eventually morphed into the 2009 underwear plot on Christmas Day,” Johnsen said. “He is also the most visible of the Saudi members of the organization, which is important both for fundraising in the Gulf as well as giving AQAP a regional and international focus.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron