By Adam Baron McClatchy Newspapers
Miami Herald correspondent Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami.
The Yemeni government reported the death Thursday of a top leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a former Guantánamo captive who went rogue after attending Saudi Arabia’s anti-jihadi rehabilitation program.
Saeed al Shihri, 39, died as a result of wounds suffered in a November “counter-terrorism operation” in the northern province of Saada, the Yemeni government said. He was described as the “deputy emir” or No. 2 in the movement, and the highest-ranking Saudi member of the group.
Al-Qaida-linked militants buried him in an undisclosed location, according to the government.
“His death, if true, would not destroy the capabilities of the organization, but it would be the biggest blow to AQAP in more than three years of U.S. bombing raids,” said Gregory Johnsen, the author of “The Last Refuge,” a recent book on Yemen and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
According to U.S. government documents, Shihri traveled to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, trained with militants north of Kabul and was captured in December 2001 attempting to flee Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan. He was transferred to Guantánamo Bay on Jan. 21, 2002, in the earliest days of the crude U.S. detention center but released six years during a period of large-scale Bush administration era repatriations to Saudi Arabia..
He then was transferred to the custody of his home country, where he was placed in a “jihadi rehabilitation program,” graduated in 2008 and then fled south to Yemen to rejoin with al-Qaida.
Months after being declared rehabilitated, Shihri resurfaced in a video with Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a fellow Afghanistan veteran who heads al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In the video, they announced the group’s formation as a merger of al-Qaida’s Saudi and Yemeni branches.
Shihri is thought to have supervised the group’s Saudi operatives in addition to playing a key role in operations in Yemen and abroad. He allegedly took part in planning a 2009 assassination attempt on Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, a 2008 bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and, according to the Yemeni government, oversaw the group’s military operations in the southern Abyan province.
Fighters linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have continued to launch attacks in Abyan on Yemeni troops since abandoning their former strongholds in the province last June. Shihri also reportedly played a key role meeting with funders and potential recruits in Saudi Arabia.
His death has been reported erroneously multiple times — most recently, he defiantly reappeared via an audio statement after being reported killed around the September 11 anniversary — and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula hasn’t yet released a statement confirming his death. In contrast to the September report, however, state-owned media in Saudi Arabia have reported Shihri’s death, quoting family members of the militant leader.
Critics of releases of Guantánamo captives, even those declared cleared for transfer, pointed to Shihri’s high profile role in Yemen’s al Qaida offshoot as proof that releasing long-held detainees risked recidivism.
A leaked Guantánamo risk assessment of Shihri, provided to McClatchy by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group showed that military intelligence analysts at the prison in Cuba advised against releasing him on April 13, 2007.
It deemed him as posing a high risk “to the U.S. its interests and allies,” a medium threat as a Guantánamo detainee whom had been assessed has having “high intelligence value,” meaning interrogators believed there was more they could learn from him about al Qaida.
But this was a period when the Bush administration was repatriating the vast majority of Saudis held at Guantánamo as part of a rehabiliation plan.
Shihri’s death would make him the highest-ranked figure in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to have been killed since the group formed. The Yemeni government’s announcement comes, however, in the midst of an uptick in the intensity of its battle against the terrorist organization.
The past week has seen nearly daily reports of suspected American airstrikes against terrorist targets in four Yemeni provinces, drawing increased attention to the controversial practice. Many Yemenis see the strikes as a breach of the country’s sovereignty and a violation of the rule of law.
Simultaneously, the Yemeni military has mobilized in preparation for a possible offensive against militants linked to Shihri’s group who currently are based in the central province of al-Beidah.
With militants able to find refuge and al-Wuhayshi and other key terrorist figures still at large, Shihri’s death by no means would render a fatal blow. Still, analysts said, the death of the group’s deputy leader would mark one of the most significant setbacks it has suffered in years.
“He has been a driving force in the organization and was a key player in developing the 2009 bomb attempt that targeted Mohammed bin Nayef, and which eventually morphed into the 2009 underwear plot on Christmas Day,” Johnsen said. “He is also the most visible of the Saudi members of the organization, which is important both for fundraising in the Gulf as well as giving AQAP a regional and international focus.”