April 16, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Targeting Al-Qaeda in Yemen

• The death of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) religious leader and spokesman Ibrahim al-Rubaish earlier this week by a suspected U.S. drone strike is an indication that the U.S. still has the ability to target the group despite the country’s descent into armed chaos

• From a counterterrorism (CT) perspective, it is important to keep AQAP, long considered al-Qaeda’s most capable affiliate, reactive as much as possible, while understanding that the tactical drone strikes by themselves will in no way form an effective strategy against the group

• Ibrahim al-Rubaish was one of a dwindling but still-large number of individuals who trained and fought with al-Qaeda and then the Taliban in Afghanistan and who never stopped fighting; his recent duties were to provide the warped religious justification for AQAP attacks, as well as urging westerners to conduct attacks at home

• Al-Rubaish’s history also shows how difficult it is to counter violent extremism once it has taken root in a person; despite the existence of well-funded programs, such as the one al-Rubaish attended in Saudi Arabia before fleeing to Yemen, some still return to the fight they never truly left.


There was a rare piece of positive reporting to contrast with the unrelenting negative news coming out of Yemen of late. Ibrahim al-Rubaish, the religious leader and spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike on April 13, 2015 near the coastal city of al-Mukalla. Though in typical Yemeni fashion, the situation is never as clear-cut as one would like. Al-Rubaish’s death is an important and effective tactic to keep the group off balance but one that won’t be able to stem the dramatic increase in violence and extremism that is taking over Yemen. As bad as the situation in Yemen is at the moment, it can sadly get a lot worse if AQAP makes significant operational gains amidst the chaos.

There were understandable concerns as to how the evacuation of U.S. Special Forces advisors from al-Anad military base would impact counterterrorism (CT) efforts against AQAP. The suspected drone strike shows that the U.S. still retains actionable and accurate intelligence in the area as well as the ability to strike at designated high-value targets. The drone strikes themselves were never based out of Yemen, rather launching from Djibouti and neighboring Saudi Arabia. What will suffer in a prolonged absence of U.S. advisors is the vital CT liaison work that facilitates information sharing and Yemeni operational capabilities. With the country in such chaos, there isn’t a stable liaison partner with which to coordinate, which will become a problem as the weeks turn into months and relationships grow stale.

Regardless of long-term challenges in addressing AQAP and the larger issue of chronic Yemeni instability, poor governance, and lack of basic natural resources such as potable water, the death of al-Rubaish is a real CT achievement. His death, like the March death of Jabhat al-Nusra military leader Abu Humam al-Shami in Syria, represented the severing of a lethal link between the early days of al-Qaeda’s rise in Afghanistan and today’s much larger crop of extremist fighters inspired by the ideology of bin Ladinism.

Al-Rubaish attended al-Qaeda’s notorious al-Farouq training camp in Afghanistan prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and fought at al-Qaeda’s last stand battle at Tora Bora in December 2001. After being detained by Pakistani security forces, he was turned over to the U.S. and sent to the detention facilities at Guantanamo where he remained for five years. In 2006, al-Rubaish was transferred to Saudi Arabia as part of an arrangement where he was enrolled in a costly and comprehensive de-radicalization program that was seen by some as a model program. The program proved less than effective in the case of al-Rubaish and several others who would flee Saudi Arabia in 2009 and help create AQAP. Al-Rubaish released an audiotape justifying the August 2009 assassination attempt on Mohammad bin Nayyef, the current deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the architect of Saudi CT efforts. That attempt exploited the perhaps too-soft approach of the Kingdom’s de-radicalization program as well as bin Nayyef’s hands-on approach to dealing with violent extremists. It also highlighted the worrisome explosive prowess of AQAP and its bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri.

Al-Rubaish was an effective propagandist and provided religious justification, however false and warped, to AQAP’s violent acts. As with the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the influential and inspirational voice of AQAP before his death in 2011 also by a U.S. drone attack, al-Rubaish amplified the group’s presence and professed its legitimacy. Removing him from the battlefield is a short-term positive achievement in the fight against AQAP, particularly given his two decades of bin Ladin-inspired violence. Unfortunately, conditions in Yemen and across the region ensure that there will be many more willing to follow his example.


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