Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced Thursday the death of one of its senior leaders, Sheikh Harith an-Nadhari, in a drone strike that took place last weekend.
Nadhari was one of the top five members of al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, deemed by many analysts to be the group which poses the most significant threat to the U.S. and other Western nations.
He was a key ideologue and sometimes-spokesperson for the group.
- Yemen's instability reveals limits of U.S. counterterror strategy
- Yemen rebels gain ground, al Qaeda gains "space"
- Yemen's main parties halt talks with Shiite rebels
After French-Algerian brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi launched their deadly attack on the office of the satirical newspaper Charie Hebdo in Paris, AQAP claimed to have dispatched them, and the group's first response came in an audio recording in which Nadhari praised the attackers.
He was often featured in releases by AQAP's official media arm, al-Malahem, weighing in on matters of religion and jihad.
The drone strike that killed him, according to AQAP, took place on January 31 in Shabwah province, southern Yemen. It purportedly hit a car he was traveling in, killing three other militants, as well.
Speaking to CBS News Thursday, an AQAP member dismissed the killing of one of the group's leaders as irrelevant.
"It is a war and whoever gets martyred in this war doesn't affect al Qaeda's struggle against its enemies, as it is clear through looking to the previous two decades," said the AQAP member in a telephone interview.
The Jan. 31 airstrike was the second U.S. drone strike in five days, and was seen as signalling Washington's resolve to keep fighting the militants despite Yemen's political paralysis, brought on by a Shiite rebel power grab.
The Shiite Houthi rebels, who are believed to be backed by Iran, overran the capital of Sanaa in September, claiming they want a greater share of power in impoverished Yemen. Last month, they raided key military buildings and the presidential palace, and besieged the residences of U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the country's prime minister. The president and his entire Cabinet eventually resigned rather than give in to the rebel demands.
The prospect of a leaderless Yemen has raised concerns about Washington's ability to continue targeting al Qaeda.
Led by Osama bin Laden's top aide Nasser al-Wahishi, al Qaeda's Yemen branch has posed the greatest danger to Western interests, especially the United States. After several unsuccessful operations on U.S. soil, the group claimed the attack on the French magazine, saying it was meant to avenge cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Al Qaeda and the Houthis - whose members are mostly Shiite Zaydis - are top enemies and have battled each other in central Yemen. But both groups are also staunchly anti-American, though the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has accused the Houthis of joining ranks with the United States in the war against it.
The al Qaeda statement vowed the group would continue to target Americans and also Houthis. "You won a battle but not the war ... nothing will stop us," it said.
Nadhari -- whose real name is Mohammd al-Murshidi -- graduated from the Imam University in Sanaa, a religious school perceived as a bastion of Sunni hard-liners and a recruitment hub for militants. The school is run by cleric Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who has been designated by Washington as a "global terrorist."