Al Qaeda's second-in-command in the Arabian Peninsula, Said al-Shihri, and six others were killed in a missile strike in Yemen's Hadramawt province on Monday, U.S. and Yemeni officials said. The missile was fired from a U.S.-operated unmanned drone.
However, this is not the first time that al Qaeda's deputy leader, who was a former Guantánamo Bay detainee, was reported killed. Al-Shihri's death was rumored in December 2009 following an air raid in the eastern Shabwa province of Yemen.
If confirmed, al-Shihri's death "would be a deeply significant blow against AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]," CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said in a report. An unnamed Yemeni government official told CNN that the officials were waiting for the DNA confirmation to determine if al-Shihri was killed.
According to an Associated Press report, two senior U.S. officials have confirmed al-Shihri's death but declined to confirm any U.S. involvement in the attack.
The Yemeni defense officials told the AP that a local forensics team, with U.S. expert assistance, had identified al-Shihri's body on the ground. Yemen's Defense Ministry issued a statement Monday saying al-Shihri and six companions were killed during an operation by the Yemeni armed forces in Wadi Hadramawt, without furnishing further details.
Al-Shihri has been the deputy leader of AQAP, an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, since its inception in January 2009, according to U.N. Security Council data concerning the militant network.
Under al-Shihri's command, AQAP was responsible for the March 2009 suicide bombings against South Korean tourists and government officials in Yemen that killed four people, and for the kidnapping of nine foreigners in Yemen -- and the subsequent execution of three of them -- in June 2009.
He is believed to have played a critical role in the August 2009 assassination attempt against Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, the assistant minister of interior for security affairs. Al-Shihri is also believed to have played a key operational role in the September 2008 attack against the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and in the December 2009 failed bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
As deputy leader of AQAP, al-Shihri has been involved in identifying targets, recruiting new members, assisting with training and attack planning and tasking others in the preparation of attacks.
Al-Shihri, listed among Saudi Arabia's 85 most wanted terrorists in February 2009, was freed from a U.S. detention facility in Cuba in 2007 and passed a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with AQAP.
BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner wrote that the death of al-Shihri would be "a serious but not fatal blow" for the militant network's operations.
"Saeed al-Shihri was not considered by Washington to be the most dangerous member of al Qaeda in Yemen," Gardner wrote. "That person is Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, the Saudi bombmaker who sent his brother to Jeddah with a concealed suicide device that intended, but failed, to assassinate the prince in charge of Saudi counter-terrorism."
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