ADEN // Al Qaeda in Yemen vowed revenge on Thursday after one of its top commanders, who may have been ISIL’s new leader in the country, was killed in a suspected US drone strike in the southern province of Abyan.
Galal Baleedi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Abyan, was killed by a drone in the Mojan area late on Wednesday night, a military source in the province told The National.
“The AQAP fighters in Abyan’s Al Maraqesha area are preparing to receive the body of Galal Baleedi, who was killed by a drone yesterday [Wednesday] along with two of his guards,” the source said on Thursday.
Baleedi was on his way back from Shabwa, about 80 kilometres from Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan where he is based, when his vehicle was targeted.
Al Qaeda fighters in Zinjibar raised their flag and fired gunshots into the air on Thursday, vowing revenge for their leader.
AQAP militants control Zinjibar and the nearby town of Jaar and move freely between Hadramawt, Shabwa and Abyan.
The United States is the only country known to operate armed drones over Yemen, home to AQAP which is considered by Washington as Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate.
Suspected US drone strikes have killed some of Al Qaeda’s top leaders, including its chief Nasser Al Wuhayshi last June.
The US state department said Baleedi was a regional AQAP emir, responsible for multiple provinces in Yemen.
It offered a US$5 million (Dh18.4m) reward for information on Baleedi over his alleged involvement in plotting bomb attacks on western diplomatic officials and facilities in the capital Sanaa in 2013.
Baleedi was originally from the Al Maraqesha area, an Al Qaeda stronghold in Abyan which has a mountainous terrain, enabling the militants to evade capture. He served in the past as the leader of AQAP in Zinjibar, but is said to have climbed the ranks of the extremist group to became a top commander.
During the 2011 revolution in Yemen, Baleedi made a public appearance at Change Square in Sanaa, the focal point of anti-government protests. He was the only leader of AQAP who dared to openly visit the site.
In August 2014, Baleedi led several major attacks, including the public beheading of 14 Yemeni soldiers in Hadramout province.
Baleedi is believed to have recently defected from AQAP to become the chief of ISIL’s Yemen branch. ISIL has been recruiting AQAP operatives in Yemen following the group’s spectacular attacks against Shiite Muslim mosques and government targets.
However, a journalist based in Abyan, Sadeq Al Faqeeh, dismissed those claims.
“If Baleedi defected to ISIL, the AQAP fighters will not open fire in the air, and they will not go out into the streets of Zinjibar as they did. All the signs that happened today by the AQAP fighters in Abyan confirm that Baleedi did not defect to ISIL,” Al Faqeeh said.
Another drone strike on Wednesday killed six suspected members of AQAP in nearby Shabwa province, a security official said.
The unmanned aircraft targeted a vehicle in the Rodhoum area, killing its six passengers.
Loyalists backed by a Saudi-led coalition have recaptured Aden, Lahj and three other southern provinces from Shiite rebels since July.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Aden home of the security chief of Lahj province, wounding the official and six other people including a 12-year-old boy.
The security chief, Brig Gen Adel Al Halemi, suffered light injuries and was in a stable condition after the attack in the city’s eastern Al Mindara district.
It was the latest in a string of attacks in the southern port city, where president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and his internationally recognised government are overseeing a campaign to dislodge the Iran-allied Houthis from the northern half of the country, which the rebels seized in 2014.
More than 5,800 people have been killed since the coalition launched an air and ground war against the rebels in March, according to the United Nations.
* with additional reporting from Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse