SANAA, Yemen -- An airstrike Monday killed al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen along with six others traveling with him in one car, 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 Mr. Shihri's death but could not confirm any U.S. involvement in the airstrike. The United States doesn't usually comment on such attacks, although it has used drones in the past to go after al-Qaida members in Yemen, considered a crucial battleground with the terror network.
Yemeni military officials said a local forensics team had identified Mr. 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 out by a U.S. drone, Yemen's Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Mr. Shihri and six companions were killed during a Yemeni armed forces operation in Wadi Hadramawt, but it did not elaborate on how they were killed.
Yemeni military officials said they had believed that the United States was behind the operation because their own army does not have the capacity to carry out precise aerial attacks, and because Yemeni intelligence-gathering capabilities on Mr. Shihri's movements were limited.
Mr. 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 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, Mr. Shihri, who is believed to have been in his late 30s, went through Saudi Arabia's famous "rehabilitation" institutes, an indoctrination program designed to replace what Saudi Arabian authorities see as militant ideology with religious moderation. But he headed south to Yemen upon release and became deputy to Nasser al-Wahishi, leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Mr. Wahishi is a Yemeni who once served as Osama bin Laden's personal aide in Afghanistan.