On Jan. 24, the Yemeni government issued a statement claiming that Said al Shihri, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s deputy emir, had died “after succumbing to wounds received in a counter terrorism operation” late last year. The report came after a “prominent jihadist” as well as family members and a journalist close to AQAP also stated that al Shihri, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, was killed.
But now reports are emerging that al Shihri may in fact be alive. These reports are unconfirmed, and al Shihri’s status is still up in the air.
Just four days ago, the Al Malahem Foundation, AQAP’s official propaganda outlet, released a banner “announcing a forthcoming audio message from Shihri,” the SITE Intelligence Group told The Long War Journal.
“It [the banner] says: Coming Soon, Allah Permitting: An Audio Speech by Sheikh Abu Sufyan al-Azdi – Saeed al-Shahri – May Allah Preserve Him,” SITE told LWJ.
The phrase “May Allah Preserve Him” is an indication that al Shihri may be alive. Al Qaeda typically says “may Allah have mercy on him” if a leader or fighter has been killed.
(AQAP has released the tape since the publishing of this post. In the Tape, al Shihri makes no reference to reports of his death.)
Some other things to consider on the status of al Shihri are reports in the press.
First, on March 13, two jihadists, one identified at “Mutabasr” and another as “Fukku al-‘Aani,” released statements on jihadist forums claiming that al Shihri was indeed alive. Mutabasr is a representative of AQAP cleric Abu Sa’ad al ‘Amili (more on him later), SITE told LWJ.
Second, on March 27, AQAP released a video that included footage of al Shihri. There was no indication that al Shihri was dead or alive.
Third, a report yesterday from the Associated Press claimed that “Al Qaeda in Yemen [sic] posted a statement on militant websites Monday saying that its second-most senior commander has not been killed. It was the second time the group has denied Said al Shihri’s death.”
The AP report continued: “The Saudi national, who fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, is ‘alive and in good health,’ according to a senior al Qaeda cleric in Yemen and the group’s media arm, Al Malahem. The cleric, Abu Sa’ad al Amili, posted the claim on his Facebook account.”
There are several problems with the AP report, however:
- As SITE told LWJ, Al Malahem did not release an official statement yesterday stating that al Shihri is alive, it merely released the banner on April 5 announcing the audiotape, as noted above. According to SITE, that was the last official item posted by Al Malahem.
- SITE also told LWJ that Abu Sa’ad al Amili “is a prominent figure in the jihadist forum community, but he’s not authorized to speak on AQAP’s behalf.”
- This is not, as AP claims, the second time Al Malahem has “denied Said al Shihri’s death.” The propaganda group has in fact never issued an official statement denying his death. LWJ confirmed this with SITE, which stated that “AQAP has not released an official statement about Shihri.”
So, AP may be conflating statements made by jihadists, and the banner released by Al Malathem, with official statements by AQAP.
Fourth, and you can take it for what it is worth, a senior US intelligence official who tracks al Qaeda told LWJ last week (before the banner was released by Al Malahem) that al Shihri may in fact be alive.
Fifth, at least one time, As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, referred to a leader who was dead as alive (Atiyah Abd al Rahman). Shortly after he was killed, As Sahab released a tape addressing Atiyah with “may Allah protect him.” In that case, it is likely that As Sahab had already distributed the tape and may have been unaware of Atiyah’s status (the tape was released within a week of the report of his death).
Finally, the confusion over the status of al Shihri merely confirms what we at LWJ have stated for years: Without a corpse and the ability to confirm the identity of said corpse, it is nearly impossible to know for certain whether an al Qaeda leader or operative is dead or alive. Al Qaeda martyrdom statements are the next best thing, as I’ve yet to detect them lying about the death of a top leader via a martyrdom statement. For more on this subject, see this report on the confusion over the status of Atiyah Abd al Rahman (who was later determined to be dead).
If you want to know what we think about the status of al Shihri is, the answer is, we just don’t know. We wouldn’t be surprised if he is alive or dead. There is just too much conflicting information about his status out there at the moment, and he’s been reported dead and has come back to disprove his death so many times that he may as well be a vampire. Without sticking a stake in his heart, cutting off his head, and exposing him to sunlight, we just can’t be certain.