SANAA, Yemen — An airstrike killed al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen along with six others traveling with him in one car on Monday, U.S. and Yemeni officials said, a major breakthrough for U.S.-backed efforts to cripple the group in the impoverished Arab nation.
Saeed al-Shihri, a Saudi national who fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, was killed by a missile after leaving a house in the southern province of Hadramawt, according to Yemeni military officials. They said the missile was believed to have been fired by a U.S.-operated, unmanned drone aircraft.
Two senior U.S. officials confirmed al-Shihri's death but could not confirm any U.S. involvement in the airstrike. The U.S. doesn't usually comment on such attacks although it has used drones in the past to go after al-Qaida members in Yemen, which is considered a crucial battleground with the terror network.
Yemeni military officials said that a local forensics team had identified al-Shihri's body with the help of U.S. forensics experts on the ground. The U.S. and Yemeni military officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information to the media.
Late Monday, after speculation surfaced that the attack was carried by a U.S. drone, Yemen's Defense Ministry issued a statement saying al-Shihri and six companions were killed during an operation by Yemeni armed forces in Wadi Hadramawt, but it did not elaborate on how they were killed.
Yemeni military officials said they had believed the United States was behind the operation because their own army does not the capacity to carry out precise aerial attacks and because Yemeni intelligence gathering capabilities on al-Shihri's movements were limited.
A brief Defense Ministry statement sent to Yemeni reporters on their mobile phones earlier in the day only said that an attack had targeted the militants. It did not specify who carried out the attack or when it took place.
Al-Shihri's death is a major blow to al-Qaida's Yemen branch, which is seen as the world's most active, planning and carrying out attacks against targets on and outside U.S. territory. The nation sits on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and 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.
The group formally known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula 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 militants from several towns.
After leaving Guantanamo in 2007, al-Shihri, who is believed to be in his late 30s, went 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Wahishi is a Yemeni who once served as Osama bin Laden's personal aide in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida 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 last year.
Last year, a high-profile U.S. drone strike killed 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.
Unlike other al-Qaida branches, the network's militants in Yemen have gone beyond the concept of planting sleeper cells and actively sought to gain a territorial foothold in lawless areas, mainly in the south of Yemen, before they were pushed back by U.S.-backed Yemeni government forces after months of intermittent battles. The fighting has killed hundreds of Yemeni soldiers.
The Yemen-based militants have struck Western targets in the area twice in the past 12 years. In 2000, they bombed the USS Cole destroyer in Aden harbor, killing 17 sailors. Two years later, they struck a French oil tanker, also off Yemen.
U.S. drone strikes have intensified in Yemen in recent months, killing several key al-Qaida operatives, including Samir Khan, an al-Qaida propagandist who was killed in a drone strike last year.
Baldor reported from Washington.
Osama Bin Laden
Al Qaeda's longtime leader <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/01/osama-bin-laden-dead-killed_n_856091.html" target="_hplink">was killed</a> in an American raid on his compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad on May 1, 2011. (AP Photo, File)
Ayman al Zawahri
Ayman al Zawahri became <a href="http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/04/29/5-most-wanted-al-qaida-leaders/" target="_hplink">al Qaeda's new leader</a> after the death of Osama bin Laden. He is believed to be hiding in Pakistan and regularly releases propaganda videos. (AP Photo/SITE Intel Group)
Abu Yahia al Libi
Abu Yahia al Libi was al Qaeda's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120429/us-al-qaida-top-5/" target="_hplink">de facto no. 2</a> after the death of Bin Laden. He escaped a high-security U.S. prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005. Al Libi <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/abu-yahia-al-libi-drone-strike_n_1569772.html" target="_hplink">was killed</a> in a drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012. (AP)
Nasser al Wahishi
Al Wahishi was once bin Laden's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120429/us-al-qaida-top-5/" target="_hplink">aide-de-camp</a> and now commands AQAP, al Qaeda's affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. (AFP/GettyImages)
Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri
Saudi Ibrahim Hassan al Asiri is <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120429/us-al-qaida-top-5/" target="_hplink">believed to be responsible </a>for building the underwear bomb used to try to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas 2009, as well as the printer-cartridge bombs. (AP)
Said al Masri
Al Qaeda's no. 3 was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/31/al-qaeda-number-three-reported-killed_n_595561.html" target="_hplink">killed</a> in an American drone strike in May 2012. (Reuters TV)
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed
Mohammed, who led the organization in Eastern Africa, was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/11/fazul-abdullah-mohammed-dead_n_875363.html" target="_hplink">killed</a> by the Somalian army in June 2011. (AP)
Abu Musab al Zarqawi
Al Qaeda's brutal leader in Iraq was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/19/two-top-al-qaeda-figures-_n_542653.html" target="_hplink">killed</a> in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. (AP Photo/U.S. Department of State, HO)
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/06/khalid-sheikh-mohammed-trial_n_1489527.html" target="_hplink">self-described mastermind</a> of the attacks of 9/11, was <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12964158" target="_hplink">captured in Pakistan in March 2003</a> and is currently being held at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/FBI) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this slide misstated the date of Sheikh Mohammed's capture.</em>
Saif al Adel
Al Adel was Bin Laden's former <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120229/ml-egypt-arrest/" target="_hplink">security advisor</a>. He is still on the run. (Getty Images)
Adnan el Shukrijumah
Adnan El Shukrijumah is reportedly responsible for al Qaeda's external operations. He <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/06/adnan-shukrijumah-new-al_n_673164.html" target="_hplink">lived in the U.S.</a> for more than 15 years. (FBI)
Atiyah Abd al Rahman
Al Rahman was al Qaeda's liaison for Iraq, Iran and Algeria until he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/27/atiyah-abd-al-rahman-al-qaeda-dead_n_939009.html" target="_hplink">was killed</a> on August 22, 2011 in Pakistan. (AP Photo/National Counterterrorism Center)