Said al-Shihri is dead again, maybe this
time for good. As the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he is
the highest ranking official in AQAP to be killed since the organization
emerged in January 2009. He's had some near misses since then, and sources in the
Yemeni military have been known to jump the gun in claiming his death. This
time the news has been issued by the Yemeni government and its state news
agency, and been confirmed by Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington.
Shihri was last reported killed in
September 2011. We wrote about him at the time:
Shihri, who went by the pseudonym Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, had fought in
Afghanistan and Chechnya before being captured by U.S. forces in December 2001,
soon after returning to Afghanistan. After several years of detention at
Guantanamo Bay, Shihri went through a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia
and was released in September, 2008. Four months later, he appeared in a video
announcing the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an aggressive
offshoot led by a former bin Laden aide Nasir al-Wuhayshi, which quickly gained
the attention of Western journalists and the intelligence community with a
series of high-profile attempted attacks and flashy online periodicals.
Shihri is believed to have helped plan a
2009 assassination attempt against Saudi prince Muhammad bin Nayif, then-head
of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism program and a proponent of the jihadi
rehabilitation program Shihri underwent. He also worked to raise funds and
recruits from Saudi Arabia. Some of his efforts were met with criticism from
within the al Qaeda network. Documents recovered from bin Laden's safehouse in Abottabad include a letter from bin Laden criticizing Shihri's communiqués demanding the release
of a Saudi fundraiser for AQAP, and suggesting that the al Qaeda franchise
clear their press releases with al Qaeda Central.
AQAP, though, seems to have made it a point
to assert its independence from al Qaeda central command. In the same letter, bin
Laden also advised against trying to hold territory in Yemen to establish an
Islamic emirate -- a suggestion the AQAP leadership pointedly disregarded. Bin
Laden's reasoning that it would leave AQAP tied to targets and exposed proved
AQAP disregarded those instructions and -- in concert with a
more locally-focused affiliate organization -- briefly occupied portions of
Jaar and Abyan provinces, including the town of Zinjibar.
They were driven out by a joint U.S.-Yemeni campaign in the spring of last year.
Since then, the organization has been scattered. Airstrikes have targeted
suspected AQAP members in Hadramawt, a large, sparsely populated province east
of AQAP's former stronghold. Shihri was reportedly wounded in Yemen's northern
Saada governorate, where AQAP has engaged in sectarian clashes with the
Houthis, a tribal-religious group agitating for government autonomy.
Unconfirmed rumors of Shihri's death have been circulating
for several days, and the circumstances of his death remain murky. According to
the Yemeni government, Shihri was seriously wounded in Saada on November 28.
The Yemeni government did not comment on the nature of the attack, and refrains
from discussing clandestine U.S. operations on Yemeni soil. After the strike,
Shihri then slipped into a coma and later died and was buried by AQAP. As with
previous reports of Shihri's death, it should probably be taken with a grain of
salt until confirmed by AQAP. Or denied by Shihri himself, as he has done before.