Yemen Claims to Have Top Terrorist in Custody

By Patrick Goodenough | January 19, 2010 | 4:25 AM EST

Members of Yemen’s anti-terrorist unit train in the outskirts of the capital San'a on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010. (AP Photo)

( – The government of Yemen says it has arrested al-Qaeda’s number two leader in the country – a Saudi held at Guantanamo Bay who was released from U.S. custody in 2007. He quickly resumed jihad activity after going through a Saudi government “rehabilitation” program.
Yemen’s interior ministry said Said Ali al-Shihri was apprehended with another militant after the car they were driving in was involved in a highway accident in the southern province of Shabwa on Monday. It said they were in the hospital under guard.
A security source told the Yemen Observer the speeding car had flipped after its occupants attempted to bypass a newly erected security checkpoint.
Al-Shihri (alternative spellings include Shehri, Shihr and Shari) emerged a year ago as the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group formed in a merger of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
His appearance in a January 2009 online video with AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi and several other al-Qaeda figures caused a stir because both al-Shihri and another of the men present were former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
(Al-Shihri was held at the facility since early 2002, after being captured along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in late 2001. Unclassified information released by the Pentagon later described him as an al-Qaeda “travel facilitator” who helped Saudis wanting to travel to Afghanistan through Iran.)
The U.S. released al-Shihri in November 2007. He was repatriated to Saudi Arabia where he underwent a government program in which Islamic clerics, sociologists and psychiatrists attempt to wean radicals off the jihadist ideology.
His public reemergence as an active terrorist last January came at a time when President Obama was pledging to shut down the detention facility within one year.
The original deadline for the closure comes later this week, although last November, amid growing legal and technical difficulties and congressional resistance, Obama conceded that it would not be met.
In an April 2009 fact sheet, the Pentagon reported that of more than 530 detainees released from Guantanamo Bay, 27 were confirmed to have reengaged in terrorist activity and another 47 were suspected to have done so. (The Saudi government on Monday named another ex-Guantanamo detainee, Fahd Saleh al-Jutaili, as one of three wanted Saudis killed in an explosion outside the kingdom last September. He was identified with the aid of DNA samples.)
‘Detention increased our persistence’
AQAP has troubled researchers since its inception, but it has drawn far wider concerns since it was recently linked to the deadly shooting at Fort Hood, Texas in November, and the abortive Christmas Day plane bombing.
AQAP in a Dec. 28 statement of responsibility said it had provided the explosive device which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of using in an attempt to bring down the Detroit-bound aircraft.
The January 2009 video in which al-Shihri appeared was posted on various militant Web sites. In it, the new group’s leaders threatened “crusader forces” in the region as well as the leaders of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and vowed to carry the jihad from the Arabian Peninsula to Israel.
Al-Shihri, identified in the video as Wuhayshi’s deputy, commented on his time in U.S. detention.
“By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad for, and were imprisoned for,” he was quoted as saying.
Following his release from U.S. detention and subsequent departure from Saudi Arabia, al-Shihri is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing at the United States Embassy in Sana’a in September 2008 – attackers disguised as Yemeni policemen set off two car bombs, killing themselves and 10 others – and the kidnapping and murder of foreigner Christians in Yemen in mid-2009.
If confirmed, al-Shihri’s capture will boost the Yemeni government’s efforts to clamp down on the group.
The report comes just days after the interior ministry claimed that six senior AQAP members, including a military commander named as Qasim al-Raymi (al-Rimi), had been killed in a January 15 airstrike near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia.
AQAP has denied the claim of the deaths, however, saying in a statement none of the six had been killed while some had sustained “mild injuries.” The statement also threatened more attacks on land, sea and in the air.
Patchy cooperation
Yemen has worked with the West in anti-terror efforts for years, although according to U.S. officials the cooperation has often been reluctant, patchy and marred by security lapses. Corruption, economic problems and the distractions of a Shi’ite tribal revolt in the north and separatist unrest in the south have also hampered effective action against terrorism.
A State Department report on global terrorism released last May gave Yemen a poor grade, saying its response to the terror threat was “intermittent” and hampered by shortcomings, including the absence of effective counterterrorism legislation, contributing to its “appeal as safe haven and potential base of offensive operations for terrorists.”
Yemen’s record on detained militants has also been poor. AQAP leader Wuhayshi and military commander al-Raymi were among 23 prisoners, including 12 convicted members of al-Qaeda, who escaped from their Yemeni jail in early 2006, using what Interpol at the time said was a 460 foot-long tunnel “dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside.”
Another of the escapees was Jamal Ahmed Badawi, on death row for his role in the Oct. 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. The attack in Aden port killed 17 American sailors.
The Yemeni government, derided by AQAP as a “traitor” and “agent” for the West, said in a weekend statement that its military operations against the group – which were stepped up late last year – were not being carried out on behalf of any other country, but to safeguard national interests.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hosting a high-level meeting in London on Jan. 28 on countering extremism in Yemen. The talks will take place alongside an international conference on Afghanistan.
Visiting Canada on Monday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi stressed that the government did not want Western troops, as their presence would “hamper our efforts to fight al-Qaeda.”
“What we need is logistic support, training and technical capabilities to fight al-Qaeda,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow