By Tim Lister and Hakim Almasmari
One of the Bond movies had the title "You Only Live Twice," but in the case of one of al Qaeda's most dangerous operatives even that may be a serious underestimate.
Abu Sufyan Said al-Shihri was - or is - the second most senior figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Last month, the Yemeni Defense Ministry announced al-Shihri had been killed "in an operation" in the Hadramawt Valley, a stronghold of AQAP in the south of the country.
But al-Shihri appears to have resurfaced with a defiant audio message.
In the message - called "Events and Lessons" and released by AQAP's media wing, Al-Malahem, on Monday - a speaker purported to be al-Shihri declares: "What has been reported in various media outlets regarding my death in the Arabian Peninsula is a rumor to cover the killing of innocent unarmed Muslims in Yemen."
Al-Shihri (if it was him) accused the Yemeni government of being an American puppet.
"They pushed another lie so they can muddy the events," the speaker said, "and this is when they reported my killing, as if America's killing of the mujahedeen is a victory for Islam and Muslims, but they are wrong."
He also addressed Arab media, saying: "To the mercenary media in Muslim countries, you have a duty to check the facts, have a credibility by checking your sources, and to use your tools to support Islam and its people rather than being a paid agent of the West."
Supported by a series of drone strikes, Yemen's armed forces have reclaimed much of the ground in the south that was seized earlier this year by militants belonging to al Qaeda and its ally Ansar al-Sharia.
In the audio message released Monday, al-Shihri described the retreat of fighters from the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa as tactical - calling it "a phase of the guerrilla war against the apostate government in Sanaa and the American crusaders."
Western media - including CNN - also reported al-Shihri's death, based on statements by officials in Yemen and reports from the state news agency. But DNA confirmation that al-Shihri was among several militants killed in a drone strike did not follow.
Yemen's Defense Ministry told CNN Monday that it stands by its previous assessment that al-Shihri was killed in an air-strike last month. It said it was still considering the option of providing DNA samples from the body alleged to be that of al-Shihri to Saudi Arabia or the United States.
But an official at the Interior Ministry who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record acknowledged that al-Shihri's apparent resurrection is an embarrassment.
"He has been announced dead numerous times by the Defense Ministry, so this is not something new. But it will hurt the credibility and reputation of the Yemeni government," the official told CNN.
Saeed al-Gomahi, an analyst in Yemen who follows al Qaeda, said that government claims of the deaths of senior al Qaeda leaders should not be taken seriously unless al Qaeda issues a statement.
"Al-Qaeda would publish and release its condolences if one of its leaders was killed," he said. "That was not the case."
Al-Gomahi also warned that U.S. drone strikes are helping al Qaeda in Yemen because of the number of civilian deaths they cause. The latest strike is said to have killed four militants close to the city of Marib on Sunday.
An air strike in September killed 10 civilians in Radaa when the missiles missed a vehicle carrying a local al Qaeda leader. Local tribal leaders blamed U.S. drones for the deaths.
But an aggressive drone campaign over the past year has thinned out AQAP's ranks, claiming the lives of militant cleric and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, senior operative Fahd al-Quso and bomb-maker Abdullah Awad al-Masri among many others. According to a Yemeni journalist who has interviewed many of AQAP's leadership, the group's senior religious figure died from injuries sustained in a drone strike earlier this month.
Altogether, according to the Long War Journal, which tracks the drone campaign, five senior figures in AQAP have been killed in 34 drone strikes this year.
In addition, several Saudi AQAP militants have given themselves up. And in April a British mole within AQAP working for Saudi intelligence thwarted a plot by the group to target a U.S.-bound airliner with a suicide bombing.
Al-Shihri, a Saudi national, joined AQAP in 2008 after being transferred from the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to Saudi custody.
Despite travel restrictions requiring him to stay in Saudi Arabia, he left for Yemen, where he joined another former Guantanamo detainee to assume leadership of AQAP.
"As deputy of AQAP, al-Shihri helps carry out terrorist acts by generating targets, recruiting new members, assisting with training and attack planning, and tasking others in the preparation of attacks," the State Department has said.
Rumors and reports of his demise are nothing new. In December 2009, Yemeni authorities said they believed al-Shihri was at the site of an aerial assault against senior al Qaeda operatives. But he apparently escaped that attack too.