ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it had captured a man it identified as the leader of the Islamic State’s Yemen branch during a raid this month on a house in southern Yemen, according to the official Saudi press agency.
The Islamic State branch rose to prominence about four years ago, at the beginning of Yemen’s civil war, and is considered one of the militant group’s smaller and less prominent franchises, with a few hundred fighters, according to a recent U.N. report.
Saudi special forces working with Yemeni counterparts captured the leader — identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Osama al-Muhajir — during a raid on the morning of June 3 in the eastern province of al-Mahra, according to a fact sheet on Muhajir that the Saudi government sent to journalists.
A U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive aspects of the operation said that Muhajir was captured in al-Ghaydah, the provincial capital, and that U.S. forces had supported the Saudi troops in an “advise and assist” role during an operation led by Saudi Arabia. The United States also provided intelligence for the operation, the official said.
The Saudi statement made no mention of a U.S. role in the capture.
Saudi troops are not known to have taken part in many U.S.-partnered anti-terrorism missions. In Yemen, the United States has mainly partnered in counterterrorism missions with troops from the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is also a member of a Saudi-led military coalition that has been fighting in Yemen since 2015.
The presence of an Islamic State affiliate in Yemen, far from the group’s onetime strongholds in Iraq and Syria, has highlighted the far-reaching consequences of Yemen’s years-long civil war. Tens of thousands of people have been killed during the conflict, which has split the country into sometimes feuding statelets and at times left swaths of Yemen effectively ungoverned, allowing militant groups to thrive.
The Islamic State’s Yemen branch claimed high-profile attacks on civilians early in the war, but more recently it has been focused on battles against the rival al-Qaeda militant group in Yemen in the central province of al-Bayda, analysts said. The United States has carried out airstrikes against both groups.
Muhajir, the Islamic State leader reported captured in the raid, was born in 1988 and defected to the Islamic State from al-Qaeda in 2015, according to the Saudi fact sheet. A U.N. Security Council report in July 2018 said his real name was Muhammed Qanan al-Sayari. The report said the Islamic State affiliate had 250 to 500 members in Yemen and had focused its attacks on Yemeni and UAE targets.
A Security Council report in December said that Sayari was believed to have been killed and that the group had a “dwindling number of fighters in the whole of Yemen.”
Saudi Arabia said that the house where he was captured was raided after “close surveillance proved the presence of the terror group’s leader, and other elements, along with three women and three children.” The women and children were not harmed, and there was no “collateral damage to civilians,” the statement said. The assertion could not be independently confirmed.
Other leaders of the group, including the chief financial officer, were also captured, the Saudi government said.
Ryan reported from Washington.