APRIL 14, 2015
U.S. Drone Kills a Top Figure in Al Qaeda's Yemen Branch
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON -- An American drone strike has killed a top ideologue and spokesman for Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, the terrorist group announced Tuesday. The spokesman, Ibrahim al-Rubeish, a 35-year-old Saudi citizen, had been held for five years in the United States military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
A statement from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, posted on Twitter, said that Mr. Rubeish was killed Monday in what it called a "hate-filled Crusader strike" near Al Mukalla, a city on Yemen's southern coast.
Since 2009, Mr. Rubeish has been the group's voice in many important pronouncements, including a video eulogy for Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric killed in a drone strike in 2011.
Mr. Rubeish, the latest of a half-dozen senior Qaeda operatives killed by American strikes in Yemen over the past year, was drawn into the terrorist network as a young man and rose nearly to the top of Al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate. The statement said Mr. Rubeish "spent nearly two decades as a mujahid," an Islamic fighter, "in the cause of Allah, battling against America and its agents," according to a translation by the Site Intelligence Group.
American counterterrorism officials say that killing operatives of the Yemen affiliate has kept it off balance, making it harder to plot against the United States. But in the judgment of most experts, the Qaeda branch there is at least as strong as it was before American drone strikes began in Yemen in 2009, in part as a result of political chaos in the country.
But Gerald M. Feierstein, a senior diplomat who was ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013, called the death of Mr. Rubeish a "major setback" for the Qaeda franchise. He said that he had no details on the attack, but that it appeared to show that the United States could carry out strikes without a stable government in Yemen to offer support.
"At this particular moment, they might feel they're operating with a certain level of impunity," Mr. Feierstein said of the Qaeda branch, speaking in an interview after a congressional hearing on Yemen. "If we can deny them that assurance, that's a good thing."
The strike was the first in Yemen in about six weeks, according to independent groups that track counterterrorism strikes. American drones have continued to carry out surveillance flights over Yemen, but strikes slowed last month after the American Embassy was closed and 125 American Special Operations troops  were pulled out of an air base in the south.
In recent months, Iran-backed Shiite militia forces known as the Houthis have seized the Yemeni capital, Sana, and faced off  against Yemen's government and airstrikes carried out by a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries. Earlier this month, Qaeda fighters took advantage of disarray among security forces and seized Al Mukalla, looting a bank and freeing hundreds of prisoners.
A senior Obama administration official declined to comment on the strike that killed Mr. Rubeish. But the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, made clear that the recent withdrawal did not end American drone operations, which are carried out from bases in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, in eastern Africa.
"We continue to actively monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen, and we have capabilities postured in the area to address them," the official said.
For several years, American counterterrorism officials have seen Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the terrorist group posing the greatest threat to the United States. It was responsible for two failed plots to blow up United States-bound airliners: one in 2009 that used explosives hidden in a bomber's underwear, and a foiled attack in 2010 using bombs hidden in printer cartridges addressed to Chicago and sent aboard cargo planes.
The life and death of Mr. Rubeish reflected several stages in the struggle of the United States to deal with terrorist suspects since 2001, including his imprisonment at Guantanamo and his participation in a Saudi rehabilitation program for militants, which evidently failed.
According to a biography  prepared by officials at Guantanamo, Mr. Rubeish was born into a wealthy Saudi family and earned a certificate in Islamic law. He wanted to join the fight against Russian forces in Chechnya, but after traveling to Pakistan for training he was directed to a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in May 2001, when he was about 22.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he fought at Tora Bora in Afghanistan and was captured by Pakistani forces and turned over to the United States, arriving at Guantanamo in January 2002. A 2005 assessment judged that he was a member of Al Qaeda who posed a "medium" risk and said that he had "some type of leadership role among detainees and strongly influences them." He contributed an "Ode to the Sea" to a collection of poems by Guantanamo prisoners published in 2007.
Earlier in 2005, Mr. Rubeish was among several Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention with a habeas corpus petition in federal court in Washington. The petition was denied, but in December 2006, the George W. Bush administration sent Mr. Rubeish home to Saudi Arabia on the condition that he enter the rehabilitation program.
That program generally has a good reputation among counterterrorism experts, but among its most prominent failures were militants who helped form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. The former deputy leader of that Qaeda branch, Saeed al-Shihri, followed the same path from Guantanamo to the Saudi rehab program and then to Yemen, where he died in a drone strike in 2013.
Mr. Rubeish, whose family name is sometimes spelled Arbaysh in English, soon emerged as a regular spokesman for the Qaeda branch. In 2009, when the group sent a suicide bomber to Saudi Arabia in an unsuccessful attempt to kill that country's counterterrorism chief, Mr. Rubeish offered the justification in an audio message.
After Mr. Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in September 2011, Mr. Rubeish who took the central role in the group's elaborate video remembrance. Last year, he denounced the American airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, saying the decision not to send ground troops "is due to the bitterness of what they tasted in their past experience in Iraq and Afghanistan."
In January, after gunmen attacked the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Mr. Rubeish praised the killings and called for more attacks in France and elsewhere in the West. The State Department had labeled him a "specially designated global terrorist," and the government was offering a reward of up to $5 million for information about his location.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.