On Tuesday, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed that Ibrahim al-Rubaish, one of the group’s top leaders and its mufti (interpreter of Islamic law), was killed by a drone strike. It is uncertain who launched the air strike, but the United States has carried out several such offensives against al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, which is located in Yemen.
Originally from Saudi Arabia, al-Rubaish traveled to Afghanistan with the intent to train for jihad in Chechnya. He ended up fighting in Tora Bora before being captured near the Pakistan-Afghan border and sent to Guantanamo Bay. The Joint Task Force Guantanamo classified al-Rubaish as a medium risk because “he may pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies.”
Al-Rubaish was one of the detainees who sued the George W. Bush administration to challenge the legality of their confinements. Meanwhile, certain terrorist-apologists sympathized with his case. Andy Worthington wrote on his website that one of al-Rubaish’s poems was published in a book edited by Marc Falkoff, an associate professor of law at Northern Illinois University. Both Worthington and Falkoff paint a sympathetic picture of al-Rubaish, who was captured while fighting for a terrorist group.
The Saudi national was released in 2006 and sent to a “Saudi rehabilitation program for jihadists.” When Al-Rubaish escaped and traveled to Yemen to rejoin al-Qaeda, the U.S. government placed a $5 million reward for information that brings him to justice. He became a top leader of AQAP, calling for violence against infidels and the revival of assassination.
When Islamic State seized large portions of Iraq and Syria, al-Rubaish declared, “I ask God that efforts are united to target the enemies of the religion.” Furthermore, in 2013, he announced it was his duty to get Muslims to kill Americans and attack Shia Iran. Al-Rubaish is evidently an example of the flawed notion of releasing captured terrorists in Guantanamo, especially to the Middle East, when they may rejoin the fight against the West.
Al-Rubaish’s death comes at a time when America’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, which mainly consists of drone strikes against AQAP personnel, is greatly compromised due to the civil war in Yemen. Ever since Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis took over Yemen in January, ousting U.S.-supported Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the country has been in chaos. Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition to carry out an airstrike campaign against the Houthis and Iranian expansion.
With the conflict in Yemen diverting international attention and resources, AQAP has continued its operations in the southern part of the country, including the seizure of Mukallah, the capital of Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout. Despite Al-Rubaish’s demise, such drone strikes are harder to conduct with less intelligence on the ground. It is a reminder that al-Qaeda is still a great threat that needs to be countered, even while fighting other enemies.