- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
Sa’id al-Shihri, the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was killed today in the Yemeni province of Hadramawt according to the Yemeni Ministry of Defense. The report was met with skepticism by some Yemen experts. al-Shihri has been reported dead before, but the reports come amid an offensive surge against AQAP targets in Hadramawt, where many militants fled after being pushed out of the province of Abyan in June. Yemeni media reported that he was killed by the Yemeni armed forces, but according to the Washington Post, he was probably killed by an American drone.
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 true. And if Shihri really was killed today, it could very well be that his location was revealed as AQAP fled their mistake in Abyan.