Al Qaeda Whack a Mole: He’s Dead. He’s Not Dead. He’s Captured. He’s Not.

The news has been filled of late with dramatic accounts of a stepped up Yemeni campaign—backed by the U.S. military—that, one by one, is supposedly killing (or capturing) the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP.)

But, to a striking degree, these reports are turning out to be bogus. One by one, those very Al Qaeda leaders seem to pop back up—very much alive and on the loose.

On Saturday, for example, U.S. news organizations, quoting Yemen’s Saba news agency, reported Yemeni government claims that an airstrike in the country’s northeastern mountains had wiped out six Al Qaeda militants—including Qasim al-Raymi, the AQAP’s “No. 3 leader” and believed by some to be the most feared jihadi in the wartorn country. “Al Qaeda military commander reported slain in Yemen airstrike,” read the headline in the Los Angeles Times story on Saturday Jan. 16.

Apparently not: on Monday, AQAP issued a defiant statement denouncing the government’s “false claims” and insisting that none of the militants had been killed in the strike (although some may have suffered “mild injuries”).  Al-Raymi was even reported to have been seen feasting with his family.

More curious, Yemen’s foreign minister, Abubakr al-Qirbi, told reporters in Ottawa that the government hadn’t actually recovered any bodies, casting further doubt on the idea that Al Raymi and his associates had been killed. al-Qirbi insisted that this was actually Al Qaeda’s fault because the group has a practice of spiriting away the bodies of its dead before government forces arrive on the scene. "This is why it makes it very difficult really to provide exact information on who has been actually killed,” he said.

One would think that would make Yemeni officials—and some journalists—a bit more cautious about pronouncing successes against Al Qaeda. Only the very same day, the Yemeni Interior Ministry announced that Said Ali Al Shihri, AQAP’s reported No. 2, had been captured when his car turned over at a military checkpoint—a claim that was reported later that day by The Long War Journal, which is closely read by experts, under the headline “Yemen captures Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s deputy leader.”

If indeed the Yemenis had captured Al Shihri, it would be very big news. As a former Guantánamo detainee who was released by the Bush administration, his “return to the battlefield” this year as one of the new leaders of AQAP has made him a symbol in the debate over President Obama’s plans to shut down the facility.

But, it may not be very big news after all. As reports today, the Yemeni government has now retracted its claim and says that it was a different Al Shihri, Yusuf Al Shihri (also a Gitmo graduate), who was actually captured.

Only it turns that there is a problem with that story as well. As the astute Princeton University-based Yemeni watcher, Gregory Johnsen, points out in this post on his blog, Waq Al-Wag, entitled, appropriately enough, “The Dead are Living and the Living are Dead,” Yusif Al Shihri was supposed to have been killed at a border crossing last October when he and another Al Qaeda associate were caught trying to sneak into Saudi Arabia, wearing women’s clothing, on their way to plan an attack in the Kingdom. Johnsen believes that original report because Yusuf Al Shihri’s last will and testament later popped up on jihadi Web forums.

All of this is hardly new. As we pointed out just a few weeks ago, the Yemen government had claimed that one of its U.S.-backed airstrikes had killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious Yemeni based cleric who had been in e-mail communication with the Fort Hood shooter—an assertion that appeared to have been contradicted a few days later when a Yemeni journalist said he’d gotten a call from Awlaki saying “I’m in my house.”

Nor is it unique to Yemen. As we also noted last week, reports that Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed in a CIA drone attack also appear to have been premature.  So too were the reports last fall that feared Pakistani terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri (just indicted last week by the U.S. Justice Department) had been slain.

But the next time you read about a big success in the murky wars in Yemen or Pakistan or anywhere else, take it with a grain of salt.

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