MAY 7, 2015
Top Qaeda Figure Dies in Yemen Drone Strike
By MARK MAZZETTI and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
WASHINGTON -- An American drone strike in a southern port city of Yemen last month killed a senior operative of the Qaeda branch in that country who had recently emerged as a public face of the group, it announced on Thursday.
The Qaeda operative, Nasr bin Ali al-Ansi, had appeared in some of the group's most significant public announcements, including a video claiming credit for the deadly attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. A statement disseminated by the group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as A.Q.A.P., said that Mr. Ansi had died along with his son and six Qaeda fighters during a strike in the port city of Mukalla.
The news of Mr. Ansi's death came as American drone operations were under new scrutiny. Last month, President Obama announced that a C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan in January had inadvertently killed two Western hostages, including an American aid worker, Warren Weinstein.
American officials would not confirm the death of Mr. Ansi or say whether there had been an operation intended to kill him. Spokesmen for the White House and the C.I.A. declined to comment. A spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center referred questions to the Pentagon, but Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter declined to provide details about the strike during a news conference on Thursday.
"We just don't talk about those, and certainly not from this podium," he said.
Mr. Ansi acted as an A.Q.A.P. spokesman in a December video in which he issued an ultimatum to the United States that the group would kill the American hostage Luke Somers if the government did not meet A.Q.A.P.'s demands within three days. Mr. Somers was killed on the day the deadline expired, after a failed rescue effort by American Special Operations troops.
He appeared in another video the next month, after two gunmen stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo. The attack killed 12 people, including its editorial director, Stephane Charbonnier, whose caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad had put him on Al Qaeda's most wanted list. American officials later confirmed that one of the gunmen had received military training in an A.Q.A.P. camp in Yemen.
An A.Q.A.P. online obituary of Mr. Ansi said that he was born in 1975 in Taiz, a Yemeni city in the highlands above the Red Sea. He fought in Bosnia and later in Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden, according to a translation of the obituary by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist messages.
"The knight dismounted from his horse after long years spent traveling between various fields of jihad in the east and west of the land, from the Philippines to Kashmir, and from Afghanistan and Tajikistan to Yemen," said the obituary. "He waged jihad with his teeth and his tongue."
Yemen for years has been wracked by poverty, civil war and terrorism. It has been further destabilized in recent months by a Shiite rebel group's takeover of the capital, Sana, and a bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia to oust the group from the city.
A.Q.A.P. appears to be capitalizing on the chaos, expanding the territory it controls in the southern part of the country.
Since President Obama announced the death of Mr. Weinstein last month, some lawmakers have tried to breathe life into an administration proposal to move the bulk of drone operations from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon. Two years ago, the White House announced its intention to make the shift, but the initiative has stalled mostly.
One of the stated reasons for having the Pentagon run the drone program is that it would bring greater transparency to a program that remains classified, even if it is hardly a secret.
Mr. Carter, the defense secretary, said on Thursday that the Pentagon was ready to assume control of the program if asked, and that Mr. Obama believed "in being as transparent as we possibly can with all the measures we take to protect America."
But, he quickly added that he could not discuss where the strikes take place, "because that's in the nature of things."
Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, and Rukmini Callimachi from New York.