Al Qaeda leader in Yemen dead, again
Skepticism is necessary, since al-Shihri, the Saudi deputy commander of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been reported dead before. Or as Mark Twain would say, reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated.
But this time, the death was confirmed by AQAP, which may be as good as it gets. Ibrahim al-Rubaish, one of AQAP's leaders, eulogized Shihri in a video posted online Wednesday, saying that he died in a U.S. drone strike, tracked because of "lax security measures during his telephone contacts (that) enabled the enemy to kill him."
Shihri's death is significant for a number of reason, but the confusion about his fate may also be telling. Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia, says while this strike may have indeed killed Shihri, the previous false claims points to greater questions about the Obama administration's drone program. "The reason he has been reported dead so many times gets to the achilles heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen: on-the-ground intelligence," Johnsen said Wednesday. "The U.S. simply doesn't have it, which means it often doesn't know who it kills. And so sometimes it thinks it kills someone, only to have them turn up later very much alive. This happened to Shihri at least 4 times."
Shihri was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and spent six years detained in Guantanamo Bay before his 2007 release into a Saudi rehabilitation program. He helped merge Al Qaeda's Saudi and Yemeni branches in early 2009 to form AQAP - much to the embarrassment of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. as both had praised the Jeddah-based reintegration program for jihadis.
Washington considers AQAP its greatest threat and Shihri, who fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan, has been tracked for years. His death is sure to impact the organization, although Johnsen, and other counterterrorism analysts have noted, AQAP is a decentralized group and can sustain the loss of its leaders.
Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm