Killing Yemen Al Qaeda's No. 2 is no death blow to the group

The death of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula No. 2 Said al-Shihri is only a setback for the group, which also recently lost its foothold in southern Yemen.

Deputy leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, Said al-Shihri, a Saudi national identified as Guantanamo prisoner number 372, speaks in a video posted on Islamist websites, in this January 2009 file frame grab. Yemeni armed forces have killed al-Shihri, a man seen as the second-in-command of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a government website said on September 10.

Less than 24 hours after the Yemeni defense ministry reported the death of Said al-Shihri, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)’s No. 2, the Yemeni capital shook as a car bomb targeting Yemeni Minister of Defense Mohamed Nasser Ahmed exploded outside the prime minister’s office in Sanaa. Editor's note: The previous sentence has been edited to correctly reflect the defense minister's name.

The attack left at least 13 dead, but failed to injure the minister himself. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell to AQAP, the attack serving as a reminder that despite facing numerous setbacks recently, the Yemen-based Al Qaeda franchise remains a dire threat to this nation’s tenuous stability.

Mr. Shihri, the highest-ranking Saudi within AQAP, took part in battles in both Afghanistan and Chechnya before being captured by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and put in prison in Guantanamo Bay for six years. Transferred to Saudi Arabia, he was released after going through a government-run “rehabilitation” program in 2008. But within weeks of his release, he joined forces with a number of fellow former Guantanamo detainees, headed south to Yemen, and rejoined the fight, teaming up with Nasr al-Wuhayshi, a former aide of Osama bin Laden who currently heads AQAP. (See a Monitor report on the rehabilitation center.)

Shihri appeared in a video with Mr. Wuhayshi formally announcing the group’s formation less than six months after Saudi authorities determined that he no longer constituted a threat.

Shihri is believed to have had a key operational role in AQAP, allegedly helping to plan a 2009 assassination attempt on Mohamed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of the interior, in addition to playing a major role in the group’s fundraising and recruiting efforts within the kingdom.

The details of the strike that killed Shihri – who has been erroneously reported killed before – remain unclear. A statement from the Yemeni Ministry of Defense claimed that Shihri and six others were killed in a Yemeni military operation in the eastern province of Hadramawt, while the Associated Press, quoting anonymous sources within the Yemeni military, said that a missile, likely fired from an American-operated unmanned drone, targeted the vehicle carrying Shihri and his companions. Yemen’s under-equipped Air Force is widely believed to be unable to carry out strikes on moving targets.

His death is seen as a major blow to AQAP, which CIA Director David Petraeus has characterized as the "most dangerous node in the global jihad." The group has been linked to several terrorist plots, including a failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a passenger airplane in Detroit.

AQAP-linked militants took advantage of the chaos surrounding last year’s uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize swaths of territory in the country’s southern Abyan province and establish a foothold there. But in a US-backed offensive in late spring, Yemeni forces dislodged the militants from their strongholds, which they held for more than a year.

But as today's deadly assassination attempt on the defense minister demonstrated, AQAP may be challenged, but it is far from defeated. Since the start of the military offensive in Abyan, AQAP-linked militants have been blamed for a number of attacks targeting members of the Yemeni military, including the assassination of southern military commander Gen. Salim Qattan in the southern port of Aden in June and a May attack on a military parade rehearsal in Sanaa that left nearly 100 soldiers dead.

The attacks are a clear demonstration of the resilience of Yemen-based extremists, analysts note. But while they may provide grim proof that AQAP remains a threat, they are also polarizing Yemeni popular opinion against the group.

“With their defeat in Abyan, Al Qaeda and their allies have decided to bring the battle to Sanaa,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “But while these attacks may demonstrate that they are still a threat, they will also antagonize the population against them.” 

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