An airstrike killed al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader in Yemen along with six others traveling with him in one car Monday, U.S. and Yemeni officials said, a major breakthrough for U.S.-backed efforts to cripple the group in the impoverished Arab nation.
Saeed al-Shihri, a Saudi national who fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, was killed by a missile after leaving a house in the southern province of Hadramawt, according to Yemeni military officials. They said the missile was believed to have been fired by a U.S.-operated, unmanned drone aircraft.
Two senior U.S. officials confirmed al-Shihri’s death but could not confirm any U.S. involvement in the airstrike. The U.S. usually doesn’t comment on such attacks, although it has used drones in the past to go after al-Qaida members in Yemen, which is considered a crucial battleground with the terror network.
Yemeni military officials said that a local forensics team had identified al-Shihri’s body with the help of U.S. forensics experts on the ground. The U.S. and Yemeni military officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information to the media.
Late Monday, after speculation surfaced that the attack was carried by a U.S. drone, Yemen’s Defense Ministry issued a statement saying al-Shihri and six companions were killed during an operation by Yemeni armed forces in Wadi Hadramawt, but it did not elaborate on how they were killed.
Yemeni military officials said they had believed the United States was behind the operation because their own army does not have the capacity to carry out precise aerial attacks and because Yemeni intelligence- gathering capabilities on al-Shihri’s movements were limited.
Al-Shihri’s death is a major blow to al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, which is seen as the world’s most active, planning and carrying out attacks against targets on and outside U.S. territory. The nation sits on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and is on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and fellow oil-producing nations of the Gulf and lies on strategic sea routes leading to the Suez Canal.