How Many Times Does Al Qaeda's Number Two Need to Die?

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Big victory in the war on terror, folks: A previously unreported air strike in December killed Said al-Shihri, al Qaeda's number two in command. This is third time he's been reported dead, so he must definitely be dead now, right? That depends on your definition of dead.

Al-Shihri is serious terrorist. Described by some as a "veteran jihadist," he was captured by the United States after fleeing to Afghanistan in the days after September 11, 2001, and spent six years in Guantanamo before being released to Saudi Arabia's "jihadist rehab" program which, in ABC News's words, "attempted to turn terrorists into art students by getting them to get 'negative energy out on paper.'"

Well that didn't work, because not long after finishing the Saudi program, Al-Shihri reappeared on the international terrorist circuit as Al Qaeda's number two leader and was supposedly involved in seizing large tracts of land in Southern Yemen back in 2011. This is after he was reportedly killed in an airstrike on Christmas Eve in 2009. Then, in 2010 Yemen claimed to have captured Al-Shihri only to report a year later in September 2011 that he'd been killed along with six others in a drone strike. The apparently indestructible Saudi jihadist did not die in that strike, according to some DNA tests that were conducted last September. He was however implicated in a drone strike this week that left him in a coma, a coma from which he was unable to recover, according to "family sources."

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This is all obviously very confusing and, in a way, it's supposed to be. Drones don't just fire missiles at terrorists who send back "confirmed kill" messages. It's a really messy operation. As we've pointed out here time and time again, we don't even know how many people we've killed -- terrorists, civilians or otherwise -- in our blitz of unmanned aerial attacks over the course of these past few years. So how on Earth could we know if we've managed to finally take out Al Qaeda's second in command? The family confirmation helps this time around, but of course it's possible that some will remain unconvinced, especially since this is not the first but the third time we've allegedly killed this guy. 

We don't necessarily need to kill him again. Chances are we'd actually be killing a goat farmer or something in the somewhat likely case that the drone strike earlier this week did the job. What makes more sense is come up with a better system of accountability so that we actually know what actually happens when the missiles from our drones hit the ground. Writing these sorts of rules and guidelines, however, does not seem to be a big priority for the administration. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.