- Associated Press - Monday, September 10, 2012

SANAA, Yemen — An airstrike killed al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader in Yemen, along with five others traveling with him in one car, on Monday, senior Yemeni Defense Ministry officials reported.

If confirmed, Saeed al-Shihri’s death would be a major blow to the militant group.

The officials said the missile that killed al-Shihri, a Saudi national, was thought to have been fired by a U.S.-operated drone, but that couldn’t immediately be confirmed. The U.S. doesn’t usually comment on such attacks, although it has used drones in the past to go after al Qaeda members in Yemen.

The Yemeni officials were elaborating on a brief Defense Ministry statement sent to Yemeni reporters on their mobile phones.

A senior official at the Yemeni president’s office confirmed the attack, but said DNA tests have yet to establish al-Shihri’s identity. The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she could not confirm al-Shihri’s death.

Al-Shihri’s death would amount to a major breakthrough for U.S. efforts to cripple the group in Yemen, which is considered a crucial battleground with the terrorist network.

The impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula is on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and fellow oil-producing nations of the Gulf and lies on strategic sea routes leading to the Suez Canal.

Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch is seen as the world’s most active, planning and carrying out attacks against targets in and outside U.S. territory. The group took advantage of the political vacuum during unrest inspired by the Arab Spring last year to take control of large swaths of land in the south.

But the Yemeni military has launched a broad U.S.-backed offensive and driven the movement from several towns.

Al-Shihri would be the latest in a series of al Qaeda figures killed in drone strikes, including U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including the attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.

Officials said the al Qaeda in Yemen deputy was killed as he left a house in the southern Hadramawt province with his five companions.

Al-Shihri, who is thought to be in his late 30s, fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, before being released and going through Saudi Arabia’s famous “rehabilitation” institutes, an indoctrination program that is designed to replace what authorities in Saudi Arabia see as militant ideology with religious moderation.

But he headed south to Yemen upon release and became deputy to Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the terror network’s Yemen branch is formally known. Al-Wahishi is a Yemeni who once served as Osama bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda in Yemen has been linked to several attempted attacks on U.S. targets, including the foiled Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airliner over Detroit and explosives-laden parcels intercepted aboard cargo flights in October 2010.

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