Yemeni airstrike targets top al Qaeda leaders
The leader and the second in command of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as a radical, Yemeni-American cleric who is said to have inspired the Ft. Hood massacre, are said to have been killed during an airstrike in Yemen today, according to Yemeni officials. The deaths have not been confirmed by the US.
The Yemeni Air Force targeted Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and his deputy Said al Shihri, as they gathered for a high-level meeting of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The terror group's top leaders were thought to have been gathering at the home of Anwar al Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who provided religious justification for US Army Major Nidal Hasan to carry out a deadly shooting spree against US soldiers in Ft. Hood, Texas.
Wuhayshi and Shihri are said to have held the meeting at Awlaki's home to plot a response to last week's controversial cruise missile attack against terror camps in Sana'a and Abyan, Saba News, the official outlet of the Yemeni government, reported. The strike took place in the Al Said district in the Shabwa province. The government claimed that "about 30 al Qaeda suspects from Yemeni and foreign nationalities" were killed.
Wuhayshi is thought to have survived the strike, but the status of Shihri and Awlaki is unknown, according to the Yemen Observer.
US officials contacted by The Long War Journal would not comment on the status of Wuhayshi, Shihri, or Awlaki, nor would they discuss any US role in today's strike. The US carried out the Dec. 17 strike using air-launched cruise missiles.
The Yemeni government claimed 34 al Qaeda operatives were killed during the Dec. 17 strikes, including Abu Salih al Kazimi and two wanted Saudis, two Egyptians, and two Chechens. Kazimi commanded a terror training camp in Abyan and was the leader of a cell that killed eight Spanish tourists in Marib in July 2007. Opposition figures in Abyan claimed that 81 civilians were killed and 213 were wounded, all of them civilians. But al Mohammed Saleh al Awlaki, an al Qaeda leader in the region, addressed a crowd in Abyan and said the group's fight is against the US and that the group not wish to target the Yemeni military.
Wuhayshi is a top al Qaeda commander and a rising star in the organization. Wuhayshi served as Osama bin Laden's aide-de-camp and was one of 23 al Qaeda operatives to escape from a Yemeni jail in 2006. He is considered to be a top contender to take command of the global terror network if al Qaeda's central leadership based in Pakistan is decapitated, a senior US military intelligence official who closely tracks al Qaeda's network told The Long War Journal.
Shihri is a Saudi citizen who was detained by the US and transferred to Guantanamo Bay for his connections to al Qaeda. He served as an "al Qaeda travel facilitator" in Mashad, Iran, where he would help al Qaeda operatives enter Afghanistan. He was also connected to the Saudi 'charity' al Wafa, which has been designated under Executive Order 13224 as a terrorist organization and is briefly mentioned in the 9/11 Commission's report as an al Qaeda front.
Shihri was released from Guantanamo in November of 2007 and placed into Saudi custody, where he then entered a rehabilitation program for former jihadists that is run by the government. Shihri played a direct role in al Qaeda's attack on the American embassy in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, in September of 2008. That attack killed 10 civilians, along with six terrorists.
Awlaki is believed to be the cleric for three of the Sept. 11 hijackers. He fled to Yemen in 2002 after coming under suspicion and is associated with a Yemeni university run by Abdulmajeed al Zindani, Osama bin Laden's spiritual advisor. Awlaki was in direct email communication with Major Hasan before the latter killed 13 US soldiers and civilians at a staging center for troops deploying overseas. Awlaki recently disclosed his conversations with Hasan to Al Jazeera.
"He was asking about killing American soldiers and officers. [He asked] whether this is a religiously legitimate act or not," al Awlaki told Aljazeera.net, according to a report in CBS News.
"The first message was asking for an edict regarding the [possibility] of a Muslim soldier killing his colleagues who serve with him in the American army," Awlaki continued. "In other messages, Nidal was clarifying his position regarding the killing of Israeli civilians. He was in support of this, and in his messages he mentioned the religious justifications for targeting the Jews with missiles. Then there were some messages in which he asked for a way through which he could transfer some funds to us [and by this] participate in charitable activities."