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Key figures in al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the Yemeni and Saudi branch of the global al Qaeda network. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the group’s top leaders.


Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is thought to have been formed in January 2009, when a video released on jihadist websites announced the merger of militant groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The group came to international attention by the end of that year, when a Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab told US investigators on his arrest that he had been trained in Yemen by AQAP.

The December 25, 2009 plot came to be called “the Christmas Day plot” and Abdulmutallab has been dubbed “the underwear bomber”. A year later, AQAP took responsibility for planting two explosives-packed containers on US-bound cargo planes. The bombs were discovered following an alert by Saudi intelligence officials.

AQAP is considered one of the most active al Qaeda branches, that has been effective at targeting Western interests.


The Preacher: Anwar al-Awlaki

Photo courtesy of SITE.
Photo courtesy of SITE.

Born in the US to parents of Yemeni descent, Anwar al-Awlaki was a fluent English speaker and one of al Qaeda’s most effective recruiters. A civil engineer by training, Awlaki served as an imam, or preacher, delivering sermons that are widely circulated on jihadist networks. US investigators say the Christmas Day plotter, Abdulmuttalab, was a “huge fan” of his lectures. So was Nidal Malik Hassan, the US Army psychiatrist who went on a rampage at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas in Nov. 2009.

Awlaki spent a year-and-a-half in a Yemeni prison, between mid-2006 and the end of 2007. After 18 months in jail, he was released following the intervention of his powerful tribe, the Awlakis.

Following his release, the US-born radical increased his jihadist preaching, recording sermons which were widely disseminated on the Internet. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomb plotter, told US investigators he was inspired by Awalki’s lectures. Months later, US officials said he was behind the October 2010 cargo planes bomb plot.

On September 30, 2011, Awlaki was killed by a US drone strike in the al-Jawf governorate in northern Yemen.


The ‘emir’: Nasir al-Wuhayshi

© IntelCenter
© IntelCenter

A Yemeni former aide to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, al-Wuhayshi, was in Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, during the US-led offensive after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He escaped via Iran and was arrested by Iranian authorities who then extradited him to Yemen in 2003.

In Feb. 2006, however, he escaped from a prison in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa along with 22 other prisoners. Many of them were later apprehended, but al-Wuhayshi eluded the authorities. He is believed to be responsible for the Sept. 2008 attack on the US embassy in Sanaa that killed 19 people outside the heavily fortified complex.

Described as a tiny man not given to impassioned speeches, Wuhayshi was considered an intellectual with a keen grasp of the Koran and hadiths. His credibility and authority was thought to stem from his close personal ties to bin Laden.

In Jan. 2009, Wuhayshi released a video announcing the merger of militant groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia – effectively providing an umbrella for Saudi militants fleeing the anti-terror crackdowns by Saudi authorities.

In May 2011, shortly after bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALS in Pakistan, Wuhayshi issued a statement warning the US that, “what is coming is greater and worse.”

In August 2011, Yemeni military officials claimed Wuhayshi had been killed in fighting in southern Yemen. The report was not confirmed and in December 2011, Wuhayshi released a statement that AQAP was supporting Salafis in their fight against the Shiite Houthis, intervening in a longstanding uprising in northern Yemen. 

On June 16, 2015, al Qaeda confirmed in an online video statement that Wuhayshi was killed in a US drone strike. US network CNN reported that the AQAP emir had been killed in the eastern Yemeni region of Hadramaut. His successor was named as military chief Qasim al-Raymi.

The fellow escapee: Qasim al-Raymi or Abu Hurayrah al-Sana’ani

In 2006, al-Raymi escaped from a Sanaa prison along with al-Wuhayshi. The two

© IntelCenter
© IntelCenter

played a key role in strengthening what would later become al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, after the organisation had been battered by Saudi authorities and close cooperation between US & Yemeni intelligence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Together, al-Raymi and al-Wuhayshi have released a number of statements on jihadi websites – an effective tool for recruiting new members from across the globe, such as Christmas Day plotter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Al-Raymi’s death has been reported multiple times.

The Deputy: Said al-Shihri

A Saudi national, Saeed al-Shihri served as the deputy leader of AQAP, according to US intelligence sources. He was captured near the Afghan-Pakistan border in late 2001 and detained at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay before being released and handed over to Saudi authorities.

Shihri went through a Saudi “deradicalisation programme” for released Islamist militants. But somewhat embarrassingly for the Saudis, after completing the programme, Shihri crossed the border into Yemen, where he co-founded AQAP in 2009.

Shihri was one of at least 11 graduates of the Saudi programme to return to terrorist activities, according to US intelligence officials.

He was reported killed at least three times by US drone strikes in 2009, 2010 and 2012, but subsequently resurfaced in videotaped messages posted on jihadist sites. In July 2013, AQAP released a videotaped statement confirming his killing in a US drone strike. The statement by AQAP’s chief theologian Ibrahim al-Rubaish did not provide details about when Shihri was struck by a US drone.

The Field-Commander: Mohammed al-Awfi, also known as Mohammed Atiq al-Harbi

Captured in Pakistan in late 2001, al-Harbi was also released from Guantanamo Bay on Nov. 2007, and graduated from the Saudi rehabilitation programme. But he later crossed the border into Yemen. Al-Harbi appeared with al-Wuhayshi in the Jan. 2009 video that announced the merger of Saudi and Yemeni militant groups. For counter-terror experts engaged in the kremlinology of jihadi counter-terror circles, his presence in the photograph is an indication of his importance in AQAP ranks. In February 2009, US news agencies reported that he voluntarily turned himself in to Saudi authorities in Yemen. A Saudi daily however reported that he turned himself in to Yemeni authorities at the Saudi-Yemeni border.

The chief theologian: Ibrahim al-Rubaish

Described as AQAP’s chief theologian, or mufti, Ibrahim al-Rubaish was born in the conservative region of Buridah in the central Saudi province of al-Qasim either in 1979 or 1980.

He was in Afghanistan around the 9/11 attacks and was arrested and sent to the US detention facility at Guantanamo. Like Shihri, Rubaish was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2006 and graduated from a Saudi “deradicalisation programme”. He then enrolled for a Master’s programme at a Saudi university, but suddenly disappeared.

Considered an intellectual and a scholar, Rubaish, as the mufti of AQAP, was responsible for issuing statements and declarations, including a July 2013 announcement confirming the death of Shihri. His rise up AQAP ranks was seen as a sign that the group is sensitive to public opinion within the Muslim community and is committed to providing religious justification for al Qaeda’s actions.

In January 2015, Rubaish accused France of surpassing the US as the top enemy of Islam. Barely three months later, AQAP released a statement on April 14, 2015, announcing Rubaish’s death in a “crusader raid” – in an apparent reference to a US drone strike in southeast Yemen. The raid was taken as a sign that a covert US drone programme against al Qaeda in Yemen continues despite the March 2015 evacuation of US troops from Yemen due to the deteriorating security situation in the war-torn nation.



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