A man claiming to be al-Qaeda’s second man in Yemen released audio denying reports that he had died in a U.S. drone attack, as Yemeni officials said Monday that another top member of the terror network was killed in a drone strike earlier this month.
The authenticity of the clip, purportedly made by Saeed al-Shihri, could not be confirmed. It was produced by al-Qaeda’s media arm in Yemen, al-Malahem, and posted on militant websites late Sunday. When top members of al-Qaeda are killed, the militants will frequently report their “martyrdom.”
The U.S. does not usually comment on drone attacks.
In the audio message, a man claiming to be the Saudi-born al-Shihri, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, denounced the Yemeni government for spreading the “rumor about my death ... as though the killing of the mujahideen (holy warriors) by America is a victory to Islam and Muslims.”
Al-Shihri fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, before being released in 2007 and going through Saudi Arabia’s famous “rehabilitation” institutes. He fled to Yemen and became deputy to Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the group known also as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni officials had claimed that al-Shihri and six others traveling with him died in a Sep. 10 strike on their vehicle. The missile was believed to have been fired by a U.S.-operated, unmanned drone aircraft.
But shortly after the announcement, the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat quoted an unnamed senior Yemeni defense ministry official as saying that DNA tests of the body have proved that the dead man was not al-Shihri.
In the audio, the man claiming to be al-Shihri lashed out at an August Islamic summit held in Saudi Arabia that focused on Syria’s civil war, saying it failed to help the Syrian people.
He said the summit was “attended by the evil leaders of the Islamic governments, at the forefront Iranian President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, the most evil person on earth.” Many Sunni militants see the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, an ally of Shiite Iran, as a holy war.
The audio also alluded to a U.S-produced anti-Islam film that gained prominence in mid-September - after al-Shihri’s reported death - and sparked protests across the Muslim world.
Meanwhile, a Yemeni Defense Ministry official said another top al-Qaeda member died in an Oct. 4 drone strike.
He said that Adel al-Abbab, ranking fourth in the network’s leadership, was among five whom Yemeni officials had earlier said were hit while they were traveling in two cars through the southern province of Shabwa. Yemen’s media, quoting relatives of al-Abbab, confirmed his death and said he had been buried in Shabwa.
All officials spoke anonymously according to regulations.
Al-Qaeda seized several southern Yemeni towns during the chaos of last year’s popular uprising, but was driven from them by the army in a summer offensive into nearby mountains and desert. They have retaliated with bombings and assassinations of Yemeni officials in the capital Sanaa and elsewhere.
Washington considers the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda to be the world’s most dangerous offshoot of the terror network, and has sent advisors to Yemen to assist the government in its campaign.