Government confirms that Al Qaeda's number two in Yemen died as a result of injuries received in a drone strike last year.
Yemen's militants lose a key figure
SANAA // Yemeni militants have suffered a major setback as the government confirmed yesterday that Al Qaeda's number two in the region had died of wounds sustained in a drone attack last year.
Saeed Al Shahri, a Saudi national and the deputy emir of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula (AQAP), was injured in an air strike in the city of Saada last year and was said to have been in a coma since. It was not clear when he died.
Yemeni security officials said Al Shahri was a key figure in the rise of AQAP and was behind at least a dozen suicide bombings and assassination attempts in Yemen over the past five years.
The government claimed Al Shahri's death as a success in its fight against terrorism, which has destabilised the fragile transitional government of Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, who succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh as president last year.
"President Hadi gave Al Qaeda numerous options, even dialogue, but they refused and this is when he was insistent to use an iron fist against them," a senior presidential aide said.
"His successes over the past year against Al Qaeda equal the successes of his former of an entire decade."
Mohammed Al Ghobari, an Al Qaeda expert at the Abaad Strategic Centre in Sanaa, said that AQAP had been weakened.
"Al Shahri's death is a clear defeat to Al Qaeda, whether on the ground, emotional, or spiritual," said Mr. "His death means that Al Qaeda is now on the run and witnessing defeat."
Yemen's Supreme National Security Committee said Al Shahri had been buried by Al Qaeda militants at an undisclosed location in Yemen.
Mr Hadi said last October that he had personally approved every US drone strike in his country and said they have helped to reverse Al Qaeda's gains.
The national security committee did not deny United States involvement in the strike on Al Shahri but three senior defence ministry officials confirmed that the air raid was carried out by a US drone.
"Saada is the last place anyone would think he would use as a hideout because it is a Shia majority region, so he did choose the right place," said one of the officials.
"His hideout was also less than 100 kilometres from the Saudi border. He could have been attempting to return to Saudi in the right time," the official added.
Al Shahri survived four previous military operations against him, including a drone strike on September 10 in Hadramawt province in which the government claimed he had been killed.
DNA tests however proved that the body recovered had not been his, and Al Shahri denied the claim in an audio message posted on militant websites on October 22.
He was earlier reported killed in an air raid in December 2009 and also survived attacks in 2010 and 2011.
Al Shahri, believed to be in his late 30s or early 40s, fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in detention at Guantanamo Bay before being handed over to Saudi authorities to take part in a government rehabilitation programme. He fled to Yemen in 2008 and became the deputy to Nasser Al Wahishi, the AQAP leader.
AQAP continues to target government forces and pro-government tribal fighters.
According to Yemen's interior ministry, Al Qaeda militants had killed more than 60 security and intelligence officials last year.
The United States considers the Yemeni branch as the most active and deadliest in Al Qaeda, and the only one that poses a real threat to the US on home soil.
AQAP has been linked to several attempted attacks on US targets, including the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner over Detroit in 2009 and a foiled plot to detonate explosives-packed parcels aboard cargo flights in 2010.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse