Al-Qaida Branch Says No. 2 Leader Killed In Yemen

Jul 17, 2013
Originally published on July 17, 2013 4:05 pm

The Yemen-based branch of al-Qaida says a U.S. drone strike has killed a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who rose to become the group’s No. 2 figure.

The announcement, posted on militant websites, gives no date for the death of Saudi-born Saeed al-Shihri.

In January, Yemen’s official SABA news agency had reported that al-Shihri died of wounds from a drone strike three months earlier.

The monitoring group SITE said today that al-Shihri was eulogized in the video by a senior official in the terrorist group, known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Shihri fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in Guantanamo. He was returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2007 and later fled to Yemen to join the al-Qaida branch there.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. In a moment, we'll check in with the mayor of West, Texas, on the three-month anniversary of that deadly fertilizer plant explosion.

YOUNG: But we start with the news today that the number two man in al-Qaida's Yemen branch was killed by a U.S. drone strike. There have been false reports of Saeed al-Shihri's death twice in the past, but al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is now confirming his death in a YouTube video.

This all raises uncomfortable reminders of the problem with detainees at Guantanamo. Al-Shihri had been a prisoner there for six years. He was released to Saudi Arabia but fled from there to Yemen. Gregory Johnsen is author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida, and America's War in Arabia." Gregory, take us through this. Saeed al-Shihri, Saudi-born, picked up in Pakistan as a fighter, sent to Guantanamo Bay. Why was he released?

GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, he was released because the Bush administration had a lot of faith in Saudi Arabia. And it felt - it was much like the Obama administration. At the end of President Bush's second term, he was trying to get rid of as many prisoners from Guantanamo as possible, and Saeed al-Shihri is one of the individuals that the Bush administration sent back to Saudi Arabia with the understanding that the Saudis would take care of this.

YOUNG: Well, the Saudis have a rehab program. Remind us what that is. And what happened? Did he escape it, or did they graduate him?

JOHNSEN: Right, so Saeed al-Shihri's actually a graduate of this rehabilitation program, and the rehab program, it takes in all sorts of different things. So they have state-sponsored clerics that come to talk to these former Guantanamo Bay detainees, explain to them why al-Qaida doesn't adhere to the tenets of Islam. They have things like art therapy.

Once you graduate from the rehab center, the state offers you a job, it offers you a wife. Al-Shihri turned those offers down and spent a little bit of time with his family, and then in late 2008, he crossed the border into Yemen and picked up exactly where he'd left off by rejoining al-Qaida.

YOUNG: OK, so what does this say about Saudi's rehab program? Is he the one failure, or is there a sense that it doesn't work?

JOHNSEN: Well, there have actually been multiple failures. In fact in early 2009, Saudi Arabia put out a list of 85 most wanted militants, people that it had once had in the country but seem to have escaped. Many of these went to Yemen. Some they believe went to Iraq and were later killed there.

But the Saudi rehab program, it works to a certain degree. But what it is unable to do is to sort of change the minds of people who are dead set on being jihadis. The people who are on the fence, rehab can do a lot for them. But the people who are firm believers in al-Qaida's message, no art therapy is going to change their mind.

YOUNG: Well, al-Shihri claimed that he was tortured in Guantanamo. So what does this story say about the sticky wicket that is Guantanamo? President Obama, as you said, wants to close it, but there's resistance to moving the detainees to a prison here in the U.S. There are questions, obviously with this story, about sending them back to their home governments. So what does this say about Guantanamo Bay?

JOHNSEN: Right, so this raises a real problem for the Obama administration, and of course we remember that on just his second day after being sworn in as president, President Obama announced and in fact signed a piece of paper announcing his intention to close Guantanamo Bay. And it was exactly that week that Saeed al-Shihri popped back up on our radar as announcing that he had rejoined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

What this means for the Obama is it puts it in a difficult position of being forced to trust its allied partners. Now most of the Saudis in Guantanamo Bay, and most of the individuals who have been released, have already been sent back to Saudi Arabia. The problem now is with the Yemenis, and it's with the United States' trust in the Yemeni government.

And the argument that a lot of people have brought up is if Saudi Arabia can't control these people, and Saudi Arabia has a much stronger central government than Yemen, how is Yemen going to be able to control the detainees, even the detainees who have been cleared for release who are sent back to Yemen.

YOUNG: And Gregory, very briefly, what does it mean for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that the number two is gone?

JOHNSEN: Right, this is a very big blow to the organization. So Saeed al-Shihri is somebody who was intimately involved in the planning for the underwear bomb attack on Christmas Day 2009. He's somebody who's been involved in all of the plots that AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has developed over the past several years.

So his loss is certainly a massive blow to the organization's strength within Yemen and its ability to project power abroad.

YOUNG: Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaida, and America's War in Arabia." Gregory, thanks.

JOHNSEN: Absolutely, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.