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AQAP Says Its Religious Leader Was Killed in Yemen Drone Strike

The drone strike comes amid increased fighting in Yemen that has seen AQAP make territorial gains.

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On the heels of the collapse of Yemen’s government and as Houthi rebels push south, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has used the increasing chaos to expand its territorial reach. But in recent days the group suffered a setback: The killing in an apparent American drone strike of its spiritual leader, Ibrahim al-Rubaish.

In an online communique released Tuesday, AQAP announced Rubaish’s death in what it described as a “hate-filled Crusader strike” and praised his contributions to the group. “He was the good example among them, the type model, and a unique brand, and waging jihad with his hand, and fighting with his weapon and invading with the blessings of Allah,” the group said in the statement, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online jihadi activity. “And he didn’t allow but to be in the very front of the ranks, battling the enemies of Allah and leading a legion of young men.”

Kathleen C. Butler, a spokesperson for the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, said that her office is aware of AQAP’s claims but “cannot confirm anything at this time.”

Though AQAP did not specify where the attack took place, Reuters reported Monday that residents in the Yemeni city of Mukalla said an al Qaeda leader had been killed in a strike west of the city, which is under the control of AQAP. According to Reuters, it was the first drone strike to have taken place since U.S. forces were forced to evacuate the country last month.

U.S. officials have said that increased fighting in the country has severely curtailed their ability to launch drone strikes and special forces raids against AQAP, which American spies consider the most capable al Qaeda affiliate.

Rubaish had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay but was released in 2006 and sent to Saudi Arabia, where he participated in a rehabilitation program that included art therapy and dialogue. Months after his arrival in the kingdom — it is unclear exactly when — he escaped and snuck across its southern border into Yemen, joining up with AQAP, rising to the position of mufti. In that role, Rubaish provided spiritual guidance to the group and theological justification for its attacks. The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on his head.

Born in 1980 in Saudi Arabia, Rubaish studied Islamic law at the university level and then traveled to Afghanistan, where he was arrested by U.S. forces and sent to Guantanamo.

While at the heavily-fortified U.S. detention center, he gained some notoriety due to his poetry. In “Ode to the Sea,” Rubaish rages against the ocean’s indifference to his captivity — a metaphor, perhaps, for the public’s indifference toward the prison’s continued operation:

Your beaches are sadness, captivity, pain, and injustice.
Your bitterness eats away at my patience.
Your calm is like death, your sweeping waves are strange.
The silence that rises up from you holds treachery in its fold.
Your stillness will kill the captain if it persists,
And the navigator will drown in your waves.
Gentle, deaf, mute, ignoring, angrily storming,
You carry graves.

As AQAP’s chief religious, ideologue, however, his message has been less benign, offering, for example, this 2009 defense of assassinations of Saudi counterterrorism officials:

“We require the revival of this tradition [of assassinations] towards the enemies of Allah, because its revival means spreading terror and fear in the ranks of the enemy. It is what makes the mercenaries in the ranks of the enemy reconsider their work for them even if they are slaves, knowing that their lives are more important to them than their ranks. It makes those who receive orders among their soldiers remember the assassination squads before they think of executing an order. It makes the enemy live in terror when he is in his home among his spouse and kids, for he does not know when the lions may strike!”

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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