Al-Qaida said in a statement posted on Twitter that Ibrahim al-Rubaish was killed by a drone late on Sunday, along with other, unnamed members of the group. The statement did not specify the location of the drone attack.
Yemeni officials had no immediate comment on the claim and the White House declined to comment.
Al-Rubaish, believed to be in his late 30s, was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2006, after which he joined al-Qaida in Yemen. He was considered the group’s the main ideologue and theological adviser and his writings and sermons were prominent in its publications.
Last year, he hailed the seizure of large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria by al-Qaida’s rival, the Islamic State group. “I ask God that efforts are united to target the enemies of the religion,” he said in a video recording at the time.
If the drone attack is confirmed, it would be the first use of unmanned aircraft since Yemen sank further into turmoil last month, prompting a Saudi-led coalition to launch airstrikes on March 26 in an attempt to halt Yemen’s Shiite rebels known as Houthis who have taken over much of the country.
The Houthi advance has also forced Yemen’s Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the country as his government crumbled.
U.S. officials have said that the collapse of Hadi’s government could undermine Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Washington considers the branch to be the most powerful in the terrorist network.
In late March, about 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading the U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Yemen.
Washington rarely comments on drone attacks. U.S. officials had been concerned their counterterrorism capabilities would be diminished because of the withdrawal of their staff. However, they also said the al-Qaida branch will likely be drawn toward the internal Yemeni conflict, and away from plotting to go after Western targets.
Al-Qaida is a staunch rival of the Shiite rebels, and has already waged a number of attacks against their advances.
U.S. officials also said that CIA drone strikes would continue but that there will be fewer of them.
After Tuesday’s al-Qaida statement, a U.S. official said that since the pullout of U.S. special forces from Yemen, the United States maintains the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations inside Yemen. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss counterterror measures publicly.