Said al Shihri, the deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was reported killed today in east Yemen. If true, Shihri’s death would be a significant blow to AQAP’s founding leadership, which has by and large remained intact since its formation in January 2009. Here’s why:
• Said al Shihri is AQAP’s deputy leader and the highest-ranking Saudi in the organization. AQAP was formed as a merger between al Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A January 2009 video announcing AQAP’s formation featured two Saudis and two Yemenis: Said al Shihri and Mohammed al Awfi, who turned himself in to authorities a month later, as well as AQAP’s leader, Nasser al Wahayshi, and its military commander, Qasim al Raymi.
• He has played a pivotal operational role in AQAP. Shihri was operationally involved in AQAP’s attack targeting Saudi’s deputy interior minister Mohamed bin Nayef and has been raising funds for the terrorist organization. Shihri appeared in a September 2009 fundraising video asking Muslims for donations and reportedly sought to marry accused al Qaeda financier Haila al Qusayir.
• He left to fight in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 and is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee (#372). Shihri is one of eleven former Guantanamo Bay detainees to have been transferred to Saudi Arabia who then were listed by the Saudi government as having rejoined al Qaeda. Said al Shihri left for Bahrain on September 23, 2001, destined for Afghanistan. According to declassified documents, Shihri helped fund others traveling to Afghanistan from Bahrain and also served as an al Qaeda travel facilitator in Mashhad, Iran. Shihri also trained at Libyan Camp north of Kabul, Afghanistan.
The details of how Shihri was reportedly killed are still emerging. Yemeni security sources are saying he was killed in a Yemeni military operation last Wednesday in Wadi al Ain in Hadramawt governorate. A drone strike was reported to have killed six AQAP operatives on that day there. There have been false reports of top AQAP leaders’ deaths before. Qasim al Raymi, AQAP’s military commander, for example, was reported killed in January 2010, but survived the airstrike. There has been an uptick in reported drone strikes in Yemen over the past two weeks – at least six according to AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Just shy of a year ago, a U.S. drone strike killed Anwar al Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric who became operational in AQAP in 2009.
Shihri’s death will certainly have a medium-term impact on AQAP’s ability to operate, but policymakers must recognize that AQAP still has room to maneuver in Yemen. The group took advantage of the unrest in Yemen during the Arab Spring to expand its network, and despite territorial advances against AQAP’s insurgent arm in the south, its operational network is largely intact.