Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Al Qaeda in Yemen: On the ropes

By Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland
July 18, 2013 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Pictured is Said al-Shihri, a commander in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, from a video posted on October 6, 2010.
Pictured is Said al-Shihri, a commander in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, from a video posted on October 6, 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen confirms death of a key leader
  • Peter Bergen says it amounts to a concession that the group is in deep trouble
  • Militants in Yemen were riding high in 2011, but drone campaign has set them back, he says
  • Bergen: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is struggling to survive

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, al Qaeda's virulent Yemeni affiliate which is known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed the death of the group's deputy leader and co-founder, Saeed al-Shihri, in a video message posted to jihadist websites.

It was a confirmation of what was long suspected: that Shihri was killed in a U.S. drone strike several months ago. And it also amounted to a concession that the al Qaeda affiliate is under an enormous amount of pressure.

In the past three years more than 30 al Qaeda leaders and other senior operatives in Yemen have been killed by U.S. drone strikes, according to a count by the New America Foundation.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

The militants killed by those drone strikes included Anwar al-Awlaki, the fiery Yemeni-American preacher who served as a key ideologue for the group and has been an inspiration for a wide range of militants living in the West, including the Tsarnaev brothers who are accused of bombing the Boston Marathon in April.

Not all of the drone strikes in Yemen have found their targets. New America Foundation's review of reliable media reporting of those strikes found that somewhere between 38 and 71 of the casualties were civilians, which included Awlaki's 16-year-old son.

A Yemeni tribal leader close to AQAP says the drone strikes have sown mistrust within the group, where there is "a feeling that the Americans have infiltrated its ranks, especially with the killing of several of its leaders."

A Yemeni's story from the drone war

Al-Shihri, a Saudi who spent six years at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, was first reported killed in January. The Yemeni government quickly confirmed Shihri's death, but until now AQAP had denied it.

AQAP's video message confirming Shihri's death was delivered by Ibrahim al-Rubaish, another Saudi who was also formerly held at Guantanamo Bay.

In the 11½-minute video, which we have reviewed, Rubaish gushes about Shihri's devotion to al Qaeda's cause. Rubaish says Shihri was "searching for martyrdom," trumpeting his combat against U.S. forces in Afghanistan where he suffered serious injuries to his hands and legs, and lost an eye.

Shihri was released from Guantanamo in November 2007, and entered a Saudi rehabilitation program and was then released. Rubaish says Shihri subsequently planned an attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which killed 10 Yemeni policemen and civilians.

But Shihri grew complacent. "Lax security measures during his telephone calls enabled the enemy to identify and kill him," Rubaish declared in his eulogy.

Shihri's death in the U.S. drone strike is part of larger story of AQAP decline over the past two years. In 2011, AQAP had gained significant territory in Yemen as it exploited the popular uprising against longtime Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Its core membership grew from approximately 300 members in 2009 to around 1,000 three years later, according to Gregory Johnsen, the author of the authoritative book "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia".

But the jihadist group lost all of these gains within about a year. An offensive by the Yemeni army that was supported by U.S. intelligence last year pushed AQAP out of the central Yemeni province of Abyan, forcing AQAP's fighters to flee to the remote desert province of Hadramaut.

The group has since been reduced to carrying out much smaller attacks; nothing compared to the massive suicide bombing it was able to conduct in the heart of the Yemeni capital in May 2012, which killed upwards of 100 soldiers as they rehearsed for a military parade.

And despite its focus on attacking U.S. targets, AQAP has not tried to attack one since its October 2010 attempt to plant bombs hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes destined for the United States. (Last year AQAP plotted to send an operative with explosives in his underwear aboard a plane bound for the United States, but that operative was actually secretly working for the British and Saudi intelligence services, so the plot was never a real threat.)

Despite all the losses AQAP has suffered its capable chief bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, remains at large. Al-Asiri was the brains behind AQAP's failed "underwear bomb" attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

AQAP's overall leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi also remains at large, Wuhayshi is AQAP's founder and his continued survival is surely important for the organization.

AQAP could regenerate, particularly if Yemen sees more upheaval, but for now, the group is on the run from the Yemeni army and U.S. drone strikes, fearful of spies in its midst, is unable to launch large-scale attacks, and boasts a dwindling cadre of leaders. AQAP, in short, is struggling to survive.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT