Al Qaeda confirms death of deputy chief in Yemen
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Saeed al-Shihri, deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP), has been reported dead at least three times in as many years. But on Wednesday, for the first time, AQAP confirmed his killing by a US drone strike.
In the course of an eventful life, Saeed al-Shihri put in time in US and Saudi detention facilities, surreptitiously crossed borders, co-founded al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, and was reported killed at least three times – only to resurface again, and again.
On Wednesday, in an apparent final death announcement, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed that the group’s deputy leader was killed in a US drone strike.
Shihri’s latest death announcement – the first by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch – was posted on jihadist websites commonly used by al Qaeda on Wednesday.
"Sheikh Saeed al-Shihri, aka Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, was killed in a US drone strike," said AQAP's chief theologian – or mufti – Ibrahim al-Rubaish, in the video.
Rubaish provided no details about when Shihri was struck by a US drone.
But he did reveal that AQAP’s No. 2 man was hit by the drone while speaking on his mobile phone in the province of Saadah, north of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. "Lax security measures during his telephone contacts has enabled the enemy to (identify and) kill him," said Rubaish.
While militants are frequently – and erroneously – proclaimed dead by local officials in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, a death announcement by al Qaeda is considered fairly credible in counter-terror circles.
Yemeni authorities had proclaimed Shihri dead in 2009 and 2011, but the reports were denied by AQAP and Shihri subsequently made a number of video appearances on jihadist forums.
In January, Yemeni officials once again announced that Shihri had died from injuries sustained in a US drone attack late last year. This time, AQAP neither confirmed nor denied the report – until Wednesday’s death announcement.
Shihri’s death – which comes as the UN has announced plans to probe the legality of US drone strikes – is a major victory in Washington’s war against al Qaeda’s most high-profile branch.
Wednesday’s death disclosure comes less than two years after one of AQAP’s most flamboyant leaders – US-born Anwar al-Awlaki – was killed in a drone strike in the al-Jawf governorate in northern Yemen in September 2011.
In one of his last videos, which was released on jihadist sites in April, Shihri launched a scathing attack against the Yemeni government for permitting US drone strikes.
He also criticised his homeland, Saudi Arabia, for allowing US bases on “sacred soil” – a longstanding grievance among Saudi jihadists and one that propelled Osama bin Laden to launch al Qaeda’s global operations following the 1990 Gulf War.
Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Saudi ‘deradicalisation’
Born in Saudi Arabia in September 1973, Shihri was in Afghanistan – training at an al Qaeda camp north of Kabul – during the 9/11 attacks. Three months later, he was captured while trying to cross the Afghan border into Pakistan and was sent to the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where he stayed until 2008, when he was repatriated to Saudi custody.
Back home from Guantanamo, Shihri attended a Saudi “deradicalisation programme” aimed at rehabilitating Islamist militants. But somewhat embarrassingly for the Saudis, after completing the programme, Shihri crossed the border into Yemen, where he co-founded AQAP in 2009.
Shihri was one of at least 11 graduates of the Saudi programme to return to terrorist activities, according to US intelligence officials.
In a 2009 interview with a Saudi daily, Shihri’s father blamed his son’s former inmate friends for luring him back to jihadist circles. Rubaish, AQAP’s current chief theologian and the man who announced Shihri’s death on Wednesday, was a fellow Guantanamo inmate who was also repatriated to Saudi Arabia.
The right mix of poverty and Islamic conservatism
The killing of AQAP’s deputy leader is a major boost for Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has seen vast swathes of the country’s territory fall to al Qaeda control following the 2011 uprisings against Yemen’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Perched at the entrance to the Red Sea, Yemen is the world’s poorest Arab nation and has the right mix of poverty and Islamic conservatism to make it an ideal al Qaeda recruitment and staging post.
Members of al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch are also considered the best indoctrinated and focused among the terror group’s global franchises. Letters and documents retrieved from bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan, house – where he was killed in 2011 – reveal that the late al Qaeda chief was often unable to control the group’s affiliates in Iraq, North Africa and Somalia.
In sharp contrast, AQAP is made up of Saudi loyalists who enjoyed bin Laden’s trust. Over the past few years, the group has launched some of the highest profile terror plots against Western interests, including the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot (also known as the "underwear" plot) against a Detroit-bound plane, and a 2010 plot to plant bombs in printer cartridges transported by cargo planes.
While militant groups by their very nature are geared to replace leaders lost to violence, the loss of seasoned, well-trained AQAP leaders such as Awlaki and Shihri in recent years has undoubtedly dealt the group a severe blow.