SANAA, Yemen -- The Yemeni government reported the death Thursday of a top leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a former Guantánamo captive who went rogue after attending Saudi Arabia's anti-jihadi rehabilitation program.
Saeed al Shihri, 39, died as a result of wounds suffered in a November counter-terrorism operation in the northern province of Saada, the Yemeni government said. He was described as the deputy emir or No. 2 in the movement, and the highest-ranking Saudi member of the group.
Al-Qaida-linked militants buried him in an undisclosed location, according to the government.
His death, if true, would not destroy the capabilities of the organization, but it would be the biggest blow to AQAP in more than three years of U.S. bombing raids, said Gregory Johnsen, the author of The Last Refuge, a recent book on Yemen and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
According to U.S. government documents, Shihri traveled to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, trained with militants north of Kabul and was captured in December 2001 attempting to flee Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan. He was transferred to Guantánamo Bay on Jan. 21, 2002, in the earliest days of the crude U.S. detention center but released six years during a period of large-scale Bush administration era repatriations to Saudi Arabia..
He then was transferred to the custody of his home country, where he was placed in a jihadi rehabilitation program, graduated in 2008 and then fled south to Yemen to rejoin with al-Qaida.
Months after being declared rehabilitated, Shihri resurfaced in a video with Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a fellow Afghanistan veteran who heads al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In the video, they announced the groups formation as a merger of al-Qaidas Saudi and Yemeni branches.
Shihri is thought to have supervised the groups Saudi operatives in addition to playing a key role in operations in Yemen and abroad. He allegedly took part in planning a 2009 assassination attempt on Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, a 2008 bombing on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and, according to the Yemeni government, oversaw the groups military operations in the southern Abyan province.
Fighters linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have continued to launch attacks in Abyan on Yemeni troops since abandoning their former strongholds in the province last June. Shihri also reportedly played a key role meeting with funders and potential recruits in Saudi Arabia.
His death has been reported erroneously multiple times most recently, he defiantly reappeared via an audio statement after being reported killed around the Sept. 11 anniversary and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula hasnt yet released a statement confirming his death. In contrast to the September report, however, state-owned media in Saudi Arabia have reported Shihris death, quoting family members of the militant leader.
Critics of releases of Guantánamo captives, even those declared cleared for transfer, pointed to Shihris high profile role in Yemens al Qaida offshoot as proof that releasing long-held detainees risked recidivism.
A leaked Guantánamo risk assessment of Shihri, provided to McClatchy by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group showed that military intelligence analysts at the prison in Cuba advised against releasing him on April 13, 2007.