- 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.
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 true.
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.