REUTERS - Leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a Muslim preacher linked to a gunman who went on a shooting spree at a U.S. army base may have died in a Yemen air raid on Thursday, a Yemeni security official said.
He said 30 militants were killed in the raid in the eastern province of Shabwa. Among them were believed to be AQAP’s Yemeni leader, Nasser al-Wahayshi, and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shehri.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who had links to U.S. army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people at the Fort Hood army base in Texas on Nov. 5, was also believed to be among the dead.
The official said their deaths were not confirmed, but that another AQAP figure named Mohammed Saleh Omair had been killed.
Resurgent al Qaeda attacks have stirred fears that worsening instability in Yemen, an impoverished country struggling with multiple security threats, might enable militants to launch renewed attacks in neighbouring oil superpower Saudi Arabia.
Here are some facts about AQAP:
* Al Qaeda’s wing in Yemen, where Osama bin Laden’s father was born, announced in January it had changed its name to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The move was an apparent attempt to revive the group in Saudi Arabia, whose three-year armed campaign had been halted in 2006 by a counter-terrorism drive.
* Wahayshi, the new group’s leader, threatened attacks against Westerners in the oil-exporting region. AQAP has also called for the overthrow of the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family. A U.N. counter-terrorism official described AQAP last month as the most dangerous of al Qaeda’s regional offshoots.
* AQAP claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed four South Korean tourists in March, in retaliation for Seoul’s ties to the U.S.-led “war on terror”, as well as mortar attacks on foreign embassies and housing compounds in Yemen last year.
* On Aug. 27, Abdullah al-Asiri, a 23-year-old AQAP suicide bomber posing as a repentant militant, tried to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef who heads Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism campaign. It was the first such attack on a royal family member.
* Many Saudis on a list of 85 wanted militants are thought to be in Yemen. Saudi and U.S. officials fear al Qaeda is exploiting instability in Yemen, beset by a northern revolt, secessionist unrest in the south and severe economic problems.
* The United States has been reluctant to repatriate Yemenis still detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in case they are released and resume militant activity. But it said on Sunday it had sent home six of the 97 Yemeni Guantanamo inmates. Two Saudi former Guantanamo detainees joined AQAP in Yemen early this year, although one subsequently returned to Saudi Arabia.
* On Nov. 1 Wahayshi urged militants to attack airports and trains in the West with home-made bombs. He has also called for attacks on countries fighting wars in Muslim states.
* AQAP claimed the Nov. 3 killing of seven Yemeni security officials in an ambush near the Saudi border.
* On Dec. 16 Yemen said it had killed 30 AQAP militants and arrested 17 in air raids and security sweeps in the southern province of Abyan and the Arhab district northeast of Sanaa. The United States provided military hardware, intelligence and other support for the raids, the New York Times reported.
* Gulf states hope that a border fence Saudi Arabia is building can end infiltration across the 1,500 km (940 mile) border with Yemen, the poorest country in the region.