Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen reports senior figure killed by drone

Al Qaeda's Yemen branch reports drone strike killed senior figure in the movement

A senior figure in Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch was killed last week in a U.S. drone strike in the country’s south, the group said Thursday in an online “martyrdom” announcement.

Harith bin Ghazi Nathari, identified by the group as a member of its committee on sharia, or Islamic law, died along with three other Al Qaeda fighters in the strike, according to the announcement. The strike took place Jan. 31 in the southern province of Shabwa, it said.

Earlier in January, Nathari, considered an influential figure in Al Qaeda, had praised the deadly attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo but stopped short of claiming responsibility on behalf of the organization’s Yemen branch. Another leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, subsequently declared that the group had financed and orchestrated the Paris assault.

In a statement posted online, the AQAP said American drone strikes against it were being carried out with the help of Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels who last year seized control of Sana, Yemen’s capital. A dangerous power vacuum developed after the resignation last month of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.

In its statement, AQAP cited “American and regional collusion” in the rise of the Houthis and called the rebels a “loyal partner to America,” according to a translation by the Maryland-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors jihadist activity.

Al Qaeda fighters have been waging a bloody war of attrition against the Houthis, who are predominantly members of a Shiite offshoot sect, the Zaidis. The Houthis are considered heretics by Sunni Muslim Al Qaeda.

Yemen in recent months has been rocked by a series of suicide bombings causing mass casualties, many of them bearing the hallmarks of Al Qaeda and aimed at government installations or Houthi gatherings. Last month, a powerful bomb outside a police academy in Sana killed dozens of recruits. In October, another bombing in the capital killed nearly 50 people, most of them thought to be Houthi supporters.

The Yemen branch of Al Qaeda, considered one the terror network’s most dangerous franchises, for years has been the target of a concerted campaign of U.S. drone strikes. At least two more strikes were reported this week in the wake of the one that killed Nathari, and one, on Monday, was believed to have killed at least three suspected Al Qaeda militants.

The ongoing chaos in Yemen has imperiled the security cooperation between its armed forces and the U.S. military. The two have cooperated in actions against Al Qaeda, and worked together in December’s failed attempt by U.S. commandos to rescue an American journalist being held hostage by AQAP militants. The hostage, Luke Somers, was shot dead by his captors in the course of the raid, together with a South African also being held by the group.

The offensive in Yemen by the Shiite Houthis has heightened sectarian tensions outside Yemen’s borders. Yemen’s Sunni Muslim neighbor Saudi Arabia fears an expansion of influence by Shiite Iran. Iran denies that the Houthis answer to it.

Times staff writer King reported from Cairo and special correspondent Hassan from Berlin.

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