In a statement on Twitter, Yemen's al Qaeda branch announced Tuesday that top cleric and Saudi national Ibrahim Al-Rubaish was killed Sunday night, along with five others who went unnamed, in a drone attack, according to the Associated Press. Al-Rubaish had a $5 million bounty on his head, and he was considered the group's main theological adviser. The branch's media wing, Al-Malahem Media, described Al-Rubaish as a religious scholar and combat commander, according to CNN.
Al-Rubaish was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2006 after being detained after fighting in Afghanistan, according to Al Jazeera. When then-President George W. Bush released him to the Saudi government, he was sent to a Saudi "rehabilitation" program, from which he escaped and then joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen branch, according to the Daily Mail. Yemeni and U.S. officials have yet to comment on the death.
In its Twitter statement, the group said Al-Rubaish, who is from the very conservative Saudi Qassim region, "has spent two decades of his life in jihad, fighting America and its agents," according to Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera correspondent Hashem Ahelbarra reporting from Doha, Qatar, said Al-Rubaish had "huge influence" within al Qaeda's Yemen fighters.
"He was very charismatic," Ahelbarra told Al Jazeera in an interview. "He was someone very instrumental in the surge of recruitment of fighters in Yemen."
Becoming a Terrorist Leader
Al-Rubaish also has a college degree in Islamic shariah law, according to the Daily Mail. The same Daily Mail article also referenced a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute, which said that in 2013, Al-Rubaish called for open holy war against Americans: "It is my duty to spur the Muslims to kill the Americans, to get them out of the Muslims' land."
Last year, Al-Rubaish hailed the seizure of swaths of land in Iraq and Syria by al Qaeda's rival, the Islamic State of Iraq, also known as ISIS, according to Al Jazeera, and hoped the two could unite against common enemies.
"I congratulate all the Mujahideen on all battlefronts and all Muslims on the victories that our brothers in Iraq have achieved against the puppets of the (Iranians)," Al-Rubaish said in a video posted online in August 2014, according to Al Jazeera. "Who does not rejoice in the victory of the Sunni Muslims and the defeat of the gangs of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-) Maliki, which had tormented the Sunnis?"
In December, a highly placed Pentagon source told the Daily Mail that Al-Rubaish was recruiting for ISIS and had sent 2,500 jihadis from Saudi Arabia and some from Yemen. That is more than twice the number of jihadi soldiers killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes over land seized by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At that time, Al-Rubaish was included on the Saudi government's list of most wanted terrorists.
A month later, in January, he urged attacks on the West and France, specifically, calling on Muslims to target anyone who mocked the Muslim prophet.
The AQAP and U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts
According to the AP, the drone attack, if confirmed, would be the first use of an unmanned aircraft since last month, when a Saudi-led coalition led airstrikes against Yemen's Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who have taken over part of the country and collapsed the government. Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has since been forced to flee the country, and the U.S. said the collapse of his government could hurt its counterterrorism strategy against what it calls the most powerful branch in al Qaeda's network, the AQAP.
And the AQAP has capitalized on the instability within Yemen over the last year, moving into territory that the civil war has left unprotected and even threatening Houthis to stay away. Most recently, the group seized Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province. This province is home to key government buildings, including the presidential palace, according to The New York Times. The AQAP drove soldiers away with mortar fire, which left the city undefended and forced citizens to flee to the city's outskirts. According to CNN, the group also issued a reward for the death or capture of two prominent Shia Muslim opponents, Houthi leader Abdelmalik Bedrudin Al-Houthi and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Houthi is the leader of the rebels who recently took over the Yemen capital.
Despite the fact that 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the Al Annad air base in Yemen in late March, Al Jazeera says that the strike might be a sign that the U.S. drone program is still continuing.
Images: Getty Images (2)