DUBAI/SANAA (Reuters) - The deputy leader of al Qaeda, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, has been killed in a U.S. bombing in Yemen, the group and the White House said on Tuesday, removing the director of a string of attacks against the West and a man once seen as a successor to leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
A close associate of Osama bin Laden in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Wuhayshi, a Yemeni in his late 30s, was named by Zawahri as al Qaeda's effective number two in 2013.
With a $10 million price on his head offered by U.S. authorities, Wuhayshi was also leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and his death potentially weakens the group, widely seen as the militant network's strongest branch.
He led the group as it plotted foiled bomb attacks against international airliners and claimed responsibility for the deadly shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, calling it punishment for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
Senior AQAP member Khaled Batarfi said in a video statement posted online that Wuhayshi "passed away in an American strike which targeted him along with two of his mujahideen brothers, may God rest their souls."
The group had met and appointed its former military chief, Qassim al-Raymi, also a Yemeni, as his replacement, he said.
In Washington, the White House said U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Wuhayshi was killed in Yemen.
"Wuhayshi’s death strikes a major blow to AQAP, al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, and to al-Qaeda more broadly," said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.
"It's a significant blow. He could have moved up to the top spot (in al Qaeda)," said Martin Reardon, senior vice president at the Soufan Group security consultancy.
"AQAP is widely considered the most capable terrorist group in the world," said Reardon, a veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, referring to the group's focus on attacks on the West.
It has also orchestrated spectacular attacks inside Yemen in recent years, targeting government ministries, military camps and soldiers, in which hundreds of people were killed.
Al Qaeda did not specify how or when Wuhayshi was killed. Some residents of the southeastern Yemeni city of Mukalla reported a suspected drone strike on Friday.
But eyewitnesses said that last Tuesday, townspeople were gathering on the city's seaside corniche after evening prayers when an explosion killed three men, spreading their limbs across a street as panicked residents fled.
In an unusual move, Al Qaeda gunmen cordoned off the area and gathered the bodies, residents said, leading them to believe a militant leader was among the dead.
Wuhayshi was the sixth major AQAP leader killed in suspected U.S. bombings this year, despite political turmoil in Yemen that led to the closing of the U.S. embassy and the evacuation of its military and intelligence personnel.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military was not involved in any strike, raising the likelihood that it was conducted by the CIA.
The Pentagon issued a warning to Wuhayshi's successor.
"While I'm sure he had to be looking over his shoulder already, he will now have to live in even more fear. Because we will find him and we will kill him. Or capture him," said spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.
Wuhayshi, according to Gregory Johnson, author of a book on Yemen, was born in southern Yemen and traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 1998 to join al Qaeda. He met bin Laden there and acted as his aide-de-camp until 2001, when the group was scattered after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. He became head of AQAP in 2009.
In 2013, U.S. sources said an intercepted communication between Wuhayshi and Zawahiri - believed based in Pakistan - was part of a broader pool of intelligence that led to an alert closing several U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa.
After an Arab military campaign against Iran-allied rebels that control much of the country's east, AQAP has made common cause with tribal and religious groups, and residents in Mukalla say its members carry weapons and recruit there openly.
Writing by Howard Goller and Noah Browning; Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Phil Stewart, Jeff Mason, Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wrouhgton and Warren Strobel in Washington, William Maclean in Dubai, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo and Mark Hosenball in Zurich.; Editing by Larry King, Dominic Evans and Dan Grebler