- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
Yemen’s defense ministry today claimed its forces killed a senior al Qaeda leader, Ayedh al Shabwani, in southern Yemen on Tuesday. In a statement on its website, the ministry said the man was killed during intense fighting in the largely lawless southern part of the country. Al Shabwani was on Yemen’s most wanted list and has evaded previous attempts on his life — including an air strike in January, 2010 on a location where he was thought to be hiding.
The government has been battling al Qaeda militants in the south without much to show for it, so far. In the past two days, 10 soldiers were killed. 90,000 people are thought to have fled the fighting. (Yemeni officials say the United States is providing logistical support and also carrying out strikes from the air and sea.) For the past several months, al Qaeda has been taking full advantage of the power vacuum playing out in the country — especially since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to leave for Saudi Arabia to recuperate from injuries suffered in an attack on his palace in June. Since then, there have been questions about who is actually calling the shots.
Given the flood of bad news, an announcement that a major al Qaeda figure is dead would surely be seen as a major achievement for the government. There’s only one problem — there are serious doubts being raised about whether al Shabwani was really killed. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time the Yemen government has claimed they got him. Some opposition groups and analysts have said the announcement was just an attempt by the government to show it had the upper hand in the fighting — when in reality it didn’t. They say the timing of the announcement — so soon after the air raid — was suspicious.
"The government is looking for victories right now even if they are lies," a Yemeni al Qaeda analyst, Said Obeid, told Reuters.
Some Yemeni officials conceded there was reason to be skeptical. "They have a right to some doubts because there has been a lack of precision in some past information given, but our media announces the news as we receive it from the area," one official told Reuters.