DUBAI (Reuters) - The Yemeni leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who was once an associate of Osama bin Laden, was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike, CNN reported on Monday, citing two Yemeni national security officials.
If confirmed, it would be a major blow to one of the most active branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden that had claimed the attack on a French satirical magazine and plotted against international airlines.
CNN said the attack occurred on Friday in the Hadramout region in eastern Yemen.
Reuters could not independently confirm the report, but some supporters of the group have published mourning notices on social media.
“Nasser al-Wuhayshi, may God accept him,” one supporter identified as Abu Gandi wrote on Twitter under the hash-tag Martyrdom of Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi.
The United States was assessing reports of his death, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity and declining to comment on any possible U.S. involvement.
The U.S. military was not involved in any strike, a second official said. It was unclear whether a strike may have been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Wuhayshi, according to Gregory Johnson, author of a book on AQAP, was born in southern Yemen and traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 1998 to join al Qaeda.
There, he met bin Laden and acted as his aide-de-camp until 2001, when the group was scattered after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
He became head of AQAP in 2009, several years after a daring prison break from a jail in Yemen.
The group has orchestrated a number of spectacular attacks inside Yemen in recent years, targeting government ministries, military camps and other institutions in which hundreds of people were killed.
In January, AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, saying it was ordered in response to insults to the Prophet Mohammed.
In 2013, U.S. sources said that an intercepted communication between Wuhayshi and al Qaeda leader Atman al-Zawahiri - believed to be based in Pakistan - was one component of a broader pool of intelligence that prompted a threat alert closing numerous U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa.
Writing by Howard Goller and Sami Aboudi; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Ken Wills