Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a statement announcing the death of Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, the group’s mufti, or Islamic scholar, in a drone strike that took place last night in eastern Yemen. Rubaish, a veteran al Qaeda leader and a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, also served as an operational planner and senior AQAP leader.
AQAP announced the death of Rubaish and several other fighters on the Twitter feed for Al Malahem Media, the jihadist group’s official media outlet. The Twitter feed has since been shut down.
According to the statement, Rubaish was located in the eastern Yemeni province of Hadramout when the remotely piloted drones killed him and his associates. Hadramout is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and the province has become an AQAP bastion over the past several years. The jihadist group reorganized in Hadramout and other provinces after losing control of major cities in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to government forces starting in late spring 2012.
Rubaish is the second senior AQAP ideologue to have been killed in a US drone strike this year. On Jan. 31, the US killed Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior sharia official who praised AQAP’s Jan. 9 attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. Nadhari may have also served as one of Nasir al Wuhayshi’s deputy general managers. Wuhayshi is AQAP’s emir who also doubles as al Qaeda’s general manager. [See LWJ report, Influential AQAP ideologue killed in US drone strike.]
Last night’s airstrike that killed Rubaish is just the fifth recorded in the country this year, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. The last drone strike in Yemen took place on Feb. 20 in Shabwa province.
The US drone program has been impacted by the burgeoning civil war in Yemen. President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has been supportive of the US counterterrorism program that has hunted AQAP leaders and operatives, was forced to flee the country after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels overran the capital of Sana’a and then the southern port city of Aden. The US abandoned the embassy in Sana’a, and then Al Anad Airbase in Lahj, which was used to coordinate counterterrorism operations in the country.
From Afghanistan to Yemen
Rubaish began his career as a terrorist by fighting alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He was held at Guantanamo, released by the US to the custody of Saudi Arabia, his native country, and subsequently freed. He then quickly joined up with al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, where he became a top sharia official.
A leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment dated Nov. 30, 2005 describes Rubaish as an al Qaeda “member who traveled to Afghanistan intent on training for jihad in Chechnya, but stayed and joined the Taliban.” JTF-GTMO’s analysts found that Rubaish stayed in al Qaeda guesthouses and “attended the group’s Al-Farouq terrorist training camp,” which was al Qaeda’s primary training facility in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.
Rubaish fought during the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001 and, according to JTF-GTMO, had ties to numerous other al Qaeda members. Rubaish’s name, alias, and other identifying information were found on various al Qaeda lists held by captured fighters. One such list “was found in a document listing the names of captured mujahideen recovered from a 20 gigabyte hard drive associated with senior [al Qaeda] operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).”
Abu Zubaydah, who remains in custody at Guantanamo, was asked about Rubaish’s “name/alias” while in US custody sometime in 2003, according to the JTF-GTMO file, and it was “familiar” to him. No other details concerning Abu Zubaydah’s identification of Rubaish are provided.
According to JTF-GTMO, Rubaish was originally convinced to travel to South Asia to fight on behalf of the Taliban and al Qaeda by a fatwa issued by Saudi cleric Sheikh Hamoud al Uqla, who “helped raise money for” Osama bin Laden “until his death in Saudi Arabia in 2001.” Al Uqla had previously been arrested for criticizing the Saudi monarchy’s close relationship with the West. And after 9/11, al Uqla “issued fatwas declaring that those supporting the US and coalition forces against Muslims were themselves nonbelievers.”
A “medium” risk
In its Nov. 30, 2005 threat assessment, JTF-GTMO found that Rubaish was a “medium” risk, “as he may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” JTF-GTMO recommended that Rubaish remain in the Defense Department’s custody.
Despite JTF-GTMO recommendation, Rubaish was transferred to his native Saudi Arabia on Dec. 13, 2006. The Saudi government said that it would take in Rubaish and attempt to prosecute him.
Instead, Rubaish and other Saudi ex-Gitmo detainees were placed into a jihadist rehabilitation program. Once completed, Rubaish and numerous other graduates absconded for Yemen, where they helped rebuild AQAP, a branch of al Qaeda that had suffered tremendous losses inside the Saudi kingdom.
Ultimately, he escaped from Saudi Arabia and went on to become one of AQAP’s most senior officials.
A Specially Designated Global Terrorist
The US State Department added Rubaish to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in December 2014. In the designation, State described Rubaish as “a senior leader of AQAP,” who “serves as a senior advisor for AQAP operational planning and is involved in the planning of attacks.” [See LWJ report, State Department designates Egyptian jihadist group, ex-Gitmo detainee.]
Rubaish “has served as a senior AQAP sharia official since 2013” and in that capacity he “provides the justification for attacks conducted by AQAP.”
According to State, Rubaish frequently made “public statements, including one in August 2014 where he called on Muslims to wage war against the United States.” The US government previously issued a $5 million reward for information on Rubaish’s whereabouts.
The State Department designation did not mention that Rubaish was detained at Guantanamo and transferred to Saudi custody.
Rubaish remained loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership up until the day he was killed. Earlier in the summer of 2014, he praised the jihadists’ advances in Iraq and Syria, but was careful not to endorse the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that repeatedly defied orders from al Qaeda’s general command before being disowned in early February.
In March 2014, Rubaish issued a rebuttal to Saudi Arabia’s royal decree that designated several Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Al Nusrah Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) as terrorists.
In July 2014, along with another senior AQAP ideologue, Rubaish released a video denouncing the slander of experienced jihadist leaders. The video was part of AQAP’s attempt to defend Ayman al Zawahiri against the criticisms levied by the Islamic State and its supporters.
On Jan. 28, the Islamic Caucasus Emirate released a joint statement by prominent jihadists, including Rubaish, Nadhari, and two senior sharia officials from the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The statement that denounced defections by Caucasus jihadists to the Islamic State, and argued that the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” is illegitimate because it was not established according to sharia law.
[For more on Rubaish’s background, based on declassified JTF-GTMO files, see LWJ report: Former Guantanamo detainee now al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula’s Mufti.]