Yemeni troops killed the second in command of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded by Washington as the jihadist network’s deadliest branch, in a raid in the east, the Defense Ministry news website said on Monday.
“The Saudi terrorist Saeed al-Shehri, the second man in Qaeda, was killed in a quality operation by the armed forces in Hadramawt,” the 26sep.net news website reported.
“Six other terrorist elements accompanying him were also killed,” it added quoting what it said was a “high-ranking source,” without mentioning when the operation took place.
“Shehri’s death deals a painful blow to what's left of the terrorist elements.”
Shehri escaped death on September 20 last year when U.S. drones carried out several air strikes on the village of Al-Mahfad in Abyan province in the south.
U.S. officials have repeatedly described AQAP as the most dangerous of the jihadist network’s worldwide affiliates.
In January 2009, Saudi and Yemeni Qaeda branches announced they had merged to form the Yemen-based AQAP.
A Yemeni security source told Reuters that Shehri was killed in an operation last Wednesday which was thought to have been carried out by a U.S. drone, rather than the Yemeni military. The source said another Saudi and an Iraqi national were among the others killed.
However, a Yemeni source told Al Arabiya that Shehri’s death is not confirmed. AFP also reported that it could not independently confirm his death.
Shehri is a former inmate of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay who was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and put through a Saudi rehabilitation program for militants.
Yemen’s government is trying to re-establish order after an uprising pushed out veteran ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh in February, but faces threats from Islamist militants, southern secessionists and a Shiite rebel movement in the north.
The protests and factional fighting have allowed Qaeda’s regional wing to seize swathes of south Yemen, and Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels to carve out their own domain in the north.
The lawlessness has alarmed the United States and Yemen’s much bigger neighbor Saudi Arabia, the top world oil exporter, which view the impoverished state as a new front line in their war on Qaeda and its affiliates.
Washington, which has pursued a campaign of assassination by drone and missile against suspected Qaeda members, backed a military offensive in May to recapture areas of Abyan province.
But militants have struck back with a series of bombings and assassinations.