Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) recently released the first part of a video series titled “Journey of Jihad” about the life of Sa’id al Shihri, the former AQAP deputy who was killed by a US drone strike in July 2013. This first installment outlines al Shihri’s transformation from a guard of Saudi King Abdallah bin Abdul ‘Aziz to al Qaeda commander in Yemen by 2008, by way of interviews with several of his jihadi companions, many of whom were formerly imprisoned at Guantanamo.
According to the film’s narrative, al Shihri, whose real name is Abu Sufyan al Azdi, was born in Riyadh in 1971 in humble circumstances and “had no other childhood except that shared by children in a simple quarter.” As a young man, al Shihri was a member of the Saudi Royal Guard Regiment entrusted with protecting the then Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abdul ‘Aziz. During this time, al Shihri was affected by the US “occupation” of Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm and by Palestine’s being “sold to the Jews” during the Oslo Peace Process. In this atmosphere, al Shihri decided to begin his journey to jihad as he grew disgusted by his firsthand exposure to the lavishness of the Saudi royal family.
Following the Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders issued in 1998 by Osama Bin Laden and other members of the al Qaeda senior leadership, al Shihri traveled to Afghanistan, where he trained in the Khalden camp under Ibn al Shaykh al Libi. During his time there, he fought in numerous battles north of Kandahar against the Northern Alliance.
Shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, al Shihri returned to Saudi Arabia and worked as a recruiter in support of the jihadi network. After the attacks, al Shihri traveled throughout the Islamic world in support of the “cause” and found his way back to Afghanistan after sensing that his movements were compromised by American intelligence. There, he joined the company of Abu Mustafa al Iraqi in Kandahar and was wounded in a battle against the Northern Alliance along with Khalid al Habib, an al Qaeda leader who oversaw the operations of the organization in Afghanistan.
According to the video, al Shihri was taken to Pakistan for medical treatment and soon after was picked up by Pakistani intelligence agents and subsequently handed over to the Americans, who imprisoned him in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The video emphasizes that it was at Guantanamo that “the reality of America became clear … its slogans of human rights became mere lies that cannot fool a sane person.” At Guantanamo, al Shihri served as “an example of a hopeful and patient mujahid.”
Former Guantanamo inmate and al Qaeda commander ‘Uthman al Ghamdi claims that during his time in Guantanamo, al Shihri “comforted his brothers” and served as a spiritual teacher and guide. Al Shihri reportedly taught lessons on a variety of topics, including Islamic law, military and intelligence, covert operations, political affairs, and even child-rearing and social interaction.
After five years at Guantanamo, al Shihri was handed over to the Saudis, who jailed him for seven months in Ha’ir prison in Riyadh and then released him pending trial. After his release, al Shihri traveled to Yemen, where he was embraced by Nasir al Wuhayshi and Qasim al Raymi. Those who knew him during this time say that “he gave a huge push to the course of jihad in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Al Shihri reportedly served as a recruiter and a coordinator between al Qaeda’s bases in Yemen, and was also respected as an inspiring preacher during this time. Qasim al Raymi, the current military commander of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, says in the video that al Shihri championed the idea that “the real enemy is America who has corrupted people and lands.”