Dubai: Al-Qaeda confirmed that its second-in-command, head of its powerful Yemeni branch, was killed in a US drone strike, in the heaviest blow to the jihadist network since the death of Osama bin Laden.
Already struggling with the rise of rival jihadists from the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months with several commanders reported killed.
In a video statement, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed that Nasir al-Wuhayshi was dead.
Wuhayshi "was killed in a US drone attack that targeted him along with two other mujahedeen," who were also killed, said the statement read by prominent Al-Qaeda militant Khaled Omar Batarfi and dated June 15.
AQAP - which was behind several plots against Western targets including the deadly attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year - said it had named its military chief Qassem al-Rimi as its new leader.
Rimi, aged 41, was an instructor at a training camp in Afghanistan during the 1990s and his younger brother is in US custody at Guantanamo Bay.
US officials were earlier reported to have been reviewing intelligence to confirm that Wuhayshi, believed to have been in his mid-thirties, was killed in a CIA drone strike on June 9.
A local Yemeni official had told AFP that Wuhayshi was thought to have died in the raid in Al-Qaeda-held Mukalla, in southeastern Yemen.
Another official said last week that a drone had fired four missiles at three Al-Qaeda militants, including an unnamed "leading figure", near Mukalla port, killing them on the spot.
The US government had offered a $10-million reward for any information leading to Wuhayshi's capture or killing and has set a $5-million bounty for Rimi.
According to Olivier Guitta, managing director of security and risk consultancy GlobalStrat, Wuhayshi's death is "another huge blow not only to AQAP" but also to Al-Qaeda's central command.
A former aide to bin Laden, Wuhayshi attended the group's Al-Farouk training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
He is said to have fled Afghanistan in 2002 to Iran, where he was arrested and handed over to Yemen.
He was held there without charge until he escaped by tunnelling his way out of prison with 22 others in February 2006.
A year later, Wuhayshi was named head of AQAP, which Washington considers Al-Qaeda's deadliest branch.
IS challenging Al-Qaeda role
When Bin Laden was killed by US commandos in Pakistan in May 2011, Wuhayshi warned Washington not to fool itself that it spelt Al-Qaeda's demise.
"What is coming is greater and worse, and what is awaiting you is more intense and harmful," he said.
As well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks that left 12 people dead, AQAP was also behind an attempt to blow up a US commercial airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
Washington has repeatedly targeted AQAP militants in drone strikes in Yemen and killed several commanders in recent months, including Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, who appeared in a video claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack.
AQAP has exploited months of fighting between loyalists of Yemen's exiled government and Iran-backed Huthi rebels to consolidate their grip on Hadramawt province and its capital Mukalla - a city of more than 200,000.
Yemen's warring factions were in Geneva on Tuesday for a second day of UN-sponsored talks.
But the rebel delegation said that it would not talk directly with officials from the exiled government, which the Huthis view as illegitimate.
While still a powerful and ruthless force, Al-Qaeda has seen its role as the preeminent jihadist group challenged by the rise of IS, the extremist organisation that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Extremist offshoots from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have sworn allegiance to IS and the two groups have clashed in various countries, most notably in Syria.
IS claimed its first attack in Yemen on March 20 - multiple suicide bombings targeting Huthis at Shiite mosques in the capital Sanaa that killed 142 people and wounded more than 350.
A senior Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was also reported killed in a US air strike in Libya this week but on Tuesday extremist group Ansar al-Sharia denied he had died.
Belmokhtar is the mastermind of a 2013 siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed.
After Wuhayshi's and Belmokhtar's reported deaths, "Al-Qaeda Central is probably on its last legs but still able to pull off terror attacks in (the) West," said Guitta.