On Monday, September 10, Yemeni officials announced that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) second-ranking leader, Said al-Shirhi, was killed by a drone strike in the southern Yemeni province of Hadramawt. He was reportedly killed along with five others in a car while leaving from a house. The US State Department has yet to confirm his death.
The al Qaeda operative is a Saudi national who fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in prison at Guantanamo Bay. After his release in 2007, al-Shihri passed through an indoctrination program in Saudi Arabia, designed to use religious moderation to replace militant ideology. He then headed for Yemen where he became the number two to AQAP’s leader, Nasser al-Wahishi. Al-Wahishi is a Yemeni who spent time in Afghanistan as Osama bin Laden’s personal aide. He took over as AQAP’s leader after two earlier leaders, Khaled Ali Hajj and Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, were killed by Saudi forces. The following provides additional information regarding al-Shihri’s role within AQAP and militant history.
- Al-Shihri’s responsibilities as AQAP’s second-in-command have included identifying targets for attack, assisting with training and attack planning, and tasking operatives in attack preparations.
- Prior to al-Shihri’s imprisonment, he received training in urban warfare tactics at a camp in Afghanistan, just north of Kabul. Shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, al-Shihri met with a group of extremists in Iran to help them get into Afghanistan. He was arrested as he tried to cross into Pakistan and sent to prison at Guantanamo Bay. He was released in 2007 after stating he would return to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to reunite with his family and work in his furniture store.
- Al-Shihri reportedly fled to Yemen in 2008, despite travel restrictions, after completing his rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. That same year, al-Shihri was suspected of involvement in the attack against the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen.
- In January 2009, AQAP released an Internet statement identifying Abu Sayyaf al-Shihri (nom de guerre) as the deputy leader of the group. Al-Shihri reportedly played a role in the attempted assassination of the Saudi assistant interior minister, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, in August later that year.
AQAP’s chief of external operations, Anwar al-Awlaki, and lead propagandist, Samir Khan, were killed nearly a year ago on September 30, 2011. If al-Shihri’s death is officially confirmed, it will come as another significant operational setback to the terrorist organization. Additionally, his death would have implications for the group’s recruitment and fundraising efforts. As a Saudi figure within AQAP, al-Shihri has played a crucial role the group’s fundraising efforts in Saudi Arabia and in the recruitment of Saudi militants.
According to officials, AQAP remains al Qaeda’s most operationally active branch. The group has been linked to several high profile plots against the US, including the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot and the 2010 cargo bomb plot. Most recently, AQAP was linked to another thwarted plot to detonate a bomb aboard US-bound aircraft this past May. The ouster of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in February temporarily strengthened AQAP, allowing them to take control of large parts of southern Yemen. This has led to an increase of drone strikes in Yemen in recent months that have successfully taken out several key al Qaeda operatives.