A Profile of AQAP’s Upper Echelon

Jul 24, 2012

The United States has relied heavily on airstrikes to disrupt al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) activities in Yemen. U.S. forces killed  Muhammad al-Kazami in 2009, Jamal al-Anbari and Nayif al-Qahtani in 2010, as well as Anwar al-`Awlaqi in 2011 and Fahd al-Qusa in 2012. As important as these men were, their deaths have done little to diminish AQAP’s strength. At the same time, U.S. strikes over the past two-and-a-half years have killed a number of civilians, which has likely helped AQAP’s recruiting within Yemen.[1]

By early 2012, as Yemen’s military fractured and split amidst widespread popular protests, AQAP seized and held several towns in the southern Yemeni governorates of Abyan and Shabwa. Following the installation of Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi as Yemen’s president in February, the United States increased the number of strikes in the country, and in May and June a sustained military offensive by Yemeni troops backed by the United States forced AQAP to abandon overt control of the towns it had captured.[2]

Today, AQAP is at a crossroads. Does it revert to what it was prior to 2011, a terrorist organization operating in the shadows? Or, does it try to reclaim the territory it lost and once again position itself as a governing authority? Whatever the group decides, the four top leaders profiled in this article—Nasir al-Wahayshi, Said al-Shihri, Qasim al-Raymi and Ibrahim Asiri—will play key roles in shaping AQAP’s strategy going forward.

Nasir al-Wahayshi, AQAP’s Leader
Nasir al-Wahayshi is a tiny wisp of a man with a jutting beard and soft-spoken manner. Known by the kunya Abu Basir, he was born in 1976 in the region of Mukayras in what was then Abyan.[3] Redistricting in 1998 put Mukayras in al-Bayda and that same year al-Wahayshi left Yemen for Afghanistan.[4] He had just graduated from one of Yemen’s private religious institutes, which had been established in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to convince Yemeni tribesmen that a republican form of government was compatible with Islam. Staffed by Egyptian exiles and Saudi teachers, many of these institutes eventually gravitated toward the more radical works of Islamic theology.

Al-Wahayshi arrived in Afghanistan in the months after Usama bin Ladin’s 1998 fatwa, declaring war on the United States and Israel, and he soon joined al-Qa`ida. Bin Laden made the young Yemeni his personal secretary, and for the next four years the two were nearly inseparable.[5] Al-Wahayshi spent all of his time with Bin Ladin, watching as the older man built and ran an international organization. He sat in on councils and helped with correspondence.

After the 9/11 attacks and the confused aftermath of the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, al-Wahayshi was separated from the al-Qa`ida commander. Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan, while al-Wahayshi moved south toward Iran, where he was eventually arrested and held for nearly two years.[6] In late 2003, al-Wahayshi was extradited back to Yemen. Apparently unaware of his close connections to Bin Ladin, Yemeni intelligence held him in the general prison population at a maximum-security facility in Sana`a.

In February 2006, al-Wahayshi and 22 other prisoners tunneled out of the jail and into a neighboring mosque where the men said their morning prayers before walking out the door to freedom. After the dramatic prison break, al-Wahayshi set about rebuilding al-Qa`ida’s network in Yemen. He recruited carefully, relying on the relationships he had built during his years in prison. Months later, in June 2007, Qasim al-Raymi announced al-Wahayshi as al-Qa`ida in Yemen’s new commander.[7] Al-Wahayshi immediately set out to correct some of al-Qa`ida’s mistakes of the past. Using the lessons he had learned from Bin Ladin in Afghanistan, al-Wahayshi designed a network that could withstand the loss of key cell leaders and, most importantly, he realized that to win in Yemen al-Qa`ida needed popular support. To that end, al-Wahayshi attempted to minimize Muslim civilian casualties and provide a clear rationale for those al-Qa`ida considered legitimate targets.

In 2009, al-Wahayshi oversaw what he ambitiously called a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qa`ida. The new organization, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula, has since attempted several attacks against U.S. and Saudi targets. Most notably, it smuggled a bomb onto a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

Said al-Shihri, AQAP’s Deputy Leader
On September 11, 2001, Said al-Shihri was at home in Saudi Arabia. A veteran jihadist with experience in Afghanistan and Chechnya, he traveled to Bahrain on September 23 before making his way to Afghanistan.[8] Al-Shihri was captured in December 2001 and later sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Saudi intelligence agents, who were cooperating with the U.S. government at Guantanamo, put al-Shihri on a list of the 37 most dangerous prisoners, and the United States labeled him a “negative leader.”[9] Still, on November 9, 2007, the United States sent him and 13 others back to Saudi Arabia.[10] Once back in the kingdom, al-Shihri was required to take part in a rehabilitation program run by the Ministry of the Interior. Less than a year later, in September 2008, Saudi officials decided he no longer posed a threat and he was released.[11] The 35-year-old al-Shihri was offered a wife and a job, but he declined.

Within weeks of his release, al-Shihri organized and led several former Guantanamo Bay detainees over the border to Yemen to rejoin al-Qa`ida. In January 2009, al-Shihri and Muhammad al-`Awfi, another former Guantanamo Bay detainee, appeared alongside Nasir al-Wahayshi and Qasim al-Raymi in a video announcing the formation of AQAP.

As the deputy commander and highest-ranking Saudi in AQAP, al-Shihri played a key role in recruiting other Saudis and fundraising in the kingdom. In late 2009, a cell phone video of al-Shihri surfaced in which he made a plea for money from wealthy Saudi donors. In an effort to avoid detection the video never left the phone on which it was recorded. Instead, an AQAP courier traveled throughout Saudi Arabia showing the video message to different individuals.[12]

Al-Shihri has also been an important voice in planning AQAP’s external plots. In 2009, al-Shihri modified al-Raymi’s original plan to assassinate Muhammad bin Nayif, convincing the Yemeni that the plot required a Saudi bomber.[13]

Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP’s Military Commander
Currently AQAP’s military commander, Qasim al-Raymi has a commanding presence and a subtle mind. During his time in a Yemeni prison, al-Raymi often delivered the Friday sermon for his fellow prisoners, and it was al-Raymi who first had the idea of using one of Saudi Arabia’s early successes in the war on AQAP against the kingdom. In the spring of 2009, al-Raymi told Said al-Shihri about his idea to smuggle a suicide bomber into Saudi Arabia posing as a repentant terrorist.[14] The plan, al-Raymi explained, would turn Saudi Arabia’s earlier victory in convincing an AQAP commander to surrender into a defeat. Al-Raymi thought the bomber could get close enough to Muhammad bin Nayif, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism head, to assassinate the prince. The eventual attack, in August 2009, barely missed killing Bin Nayif.

Born in 1978, al-Raymi spent some time in the 1990s at al-Qa`ida’s training camps in Afghanistan.[15] He was among the 23 prisoners who escaped in February 2006 and it was al-Raymi, more than anyone else, who helped al-Wahayshi rebuild al-Qa`ida’s fractured network in Yemen.[16] More recently, al-Raymi has played a key role in AQAP’s takeover of towns in Abyan and Shabwa, and evidence from the martyr biographies the organization often publishes on the internet suggests that he often directs the movements of fighters.[17]

Al-Raymi has been reported killed several times, including in a U.S. airstrike in January 2010, but he has always survived.[18] His younger brother, Ali, is currently in Guantanamo Bay.

Ibrahim Asiri, AQAP’s Chief Bombmaker
Following the death of Anwar al-`Awlaqi in September 2011, Ibrahim Asiri has emerged in Western media reports as AQAP’s biggest threat.[19] Much of this reporting, like that surrounding al-`Awlaqi, focuses on a single individual—an “evil genius”[20]—as opposed to the more accurate if less spectacular truth of a group effort. Al-Raymi thought of the idea to assassinate Bin Nayif—the plot from which AQAP’s attempts against the United States have stemmed—but it was al-Shihri who, along with others, refined the plot and Asiri who provided the technical expertise.[21]

Asiri did not plan to join al-Qa`ida, at least initially. In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Asiri was a chemistry student at King Saud University in Riyadh. Within months he had abandoned his studies and joined a group that was looking to fight against U.S. forces in Iraq. Saudi troops uncovered the cell and seized Asiri, imprisoning him for several months. Asiri’s time in prison radicalized him. “Up until that point I didn’t know that the Saudi government was in the service of the crusaders,” he later said.[22]

When Asiri was released he started another cell, only this time he was looking to fight the Saudis as well as the Americans. Muhammad bin Nayif’s men from the Ministry of the Interior again broke up the cell. Asiri and his younger brother, Abdullah, escaped the crackdown and fled to Yemen, crossing the border in August 2006.[23]

In the nearly six years since Asiri’s escape from Riyadh, he has emerged as one of AQAP’s top bombmakers. He made the bomb his brother, Abdullah, used in AQAP’s attempted assassination of Muhammad bin Nayif in August 2009, and he built the one Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab smuggled on board a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day later that same year. It is unclear whether Asiri built the two explosives used in the 2010 parcel bomb plot or the latest underwear bomb that was intercepted by an undercover agent in early 2012. What does seem clear is that Asiri, who apparently acquired his bombmaking skills after arriving in Yemen, is also training others in an effort to not only increase AQAP’s capabilities, but potentially to replace him should he be killed.

In late 2010, following the parcel bomb plot, an AQAP author mocked Western analysts who were focused exclusively on Asiri, asking: “Isn’t it funny how America thinks AQAP has only one major bombmaker?”[24]

Conclusion
Nasir al-Wahayshi, Said al-Shihri, Qasim al-Raymi and Ibrahim Asiri are key to the future of AQAP. Yet to truly dismantle and disrupt AQAP, Yemen and the United States must both eliminate the group’s leadership and erode the popular support that has led to an influx of new recruits in recent years.

Gregory D. Johnsen is the author of The Last Refuge, Yemen, al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, due out this fall from W.W. Norton. A former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and the author of the Yemen blog, Waq al-Waq.

[1] There have been conflicting reports as to whether or not U.S. airstrikes and resulting civilian casualties have indeed led to a spike in recruiting for AQAP. According to the U.S. and Yemeni governments, however, AQAP has grown in strength from 200-300 fighters in late 2009 to more than 1,000 in 2012. Material in both Arabic and English suggests that this increase is being driven, at least in part, by civilian deaths. See, for instance, reports in al-Maddad newsletter, published by Ansar al-Shari`a, as well as Kelly McEvers, “Yemen Airstrikes Punish Militants, and Civilians,” NPR All Things Considered, July 6, 2012.

[2] Given the nature of U.S. strikes in Yemen and the fact that both the U.S. and Yemeni governments obfuscate the details of military actions in the country, it is difficult to maintain an accurate account of when and where the U.S. attacks. Reporting by the New York Times, the New America Foundation and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism all agree that the United States has increased the number of strikes since Hadi took office in February 2012. See, for instance, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012; Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland, “Obama Ramps up Covert War in Yemen,” CNN, June 12, 2012; “Yemen Strikes Visualised,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 2, 2012.

[3] UN Security Council SC/9848, January 19, 2010.

[4] Ibrahim al-Maqhafi, Mu’ajim al-buldan wa-l-qaba’il al-yamaniya, volumes 1-2 (Sana`a: Dar al-Kalimah, 2002), pp. 1269-1270.

[5] Jabir al-Fayfi, “Interview on Hamuna,” Saudi Television, December 2010.

[6] Robert F. Worth, “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” New York Times, July 6, 2010.

[7] Gregory D. Johnsen, “Yemen Attack Reveals Struggles Among al-Qaeda Ranks,” Terrorism Focus 4:22 (2007).

[8] “Said al-Shihri,” Administrative Review Board Summaries, Round 2, Guantanamo Bay, available at http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/372-said-ali-al-shihri/documents/3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Robert F. Worth, “Freed by the U.S., Saudi Becomes a Qaeda Chief,” New York Times, January 22, 2009.

[11] Abdullah al-Oraifij, “Shihri’s Father Damns Him for Returning to al-Qaeda,” Saudi Gazette, January 26, 2009.

[12] “Al-Arabiya takashif rasala min al-qa`ida,” al-Arabiya.net, December 27, 2009.

[13] Turki al-Sahayl, “Tafasil jadid min muhawala ightiyal Muhammad bin nayif,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 12, 2011.

[14]  Ibid.

[15] United Nations 1267 Committee, July 3, 2012.

[16] Al-Raymi delivered al-Qa`ida’s first audio message following its resurrection in 2007. He was also the individual who announced that al-Wahayshi had been named the amir of the new group with al-Raymi as his deputy commander.  Following the “merger” that formed AQAP in January 2009, al-Raymi was named a “military commander,” while al-Shihri, a Saudi, became AQAP’s deputy commander.

[17] See, for instance, “Shuhada al-jazira #10, Mawhid al-Maribi,” al-Malahim Media, March 2012.

[18] Sudarsan Raghavan, “Yemeni Airstrike Kills Six Suspected al-Qaeda Militants,” Washington Post, January 16, 2010.

[19] Paul Cruickshank, Nic Robertson and Tim Lister, “Al-Qaeda’s Biggest Threat,” CNN, February 16, 2012.

[20] Representative Peter King, as quoted in Sudarsan Raghavan and Peter Finn, “Al Qaeda Bombmaker Represents CIA’s Worst Fears,” Washington Post, May 8, 2012.

[21] Al-Sahayl.

[22] Salim al-Najdi, “Sira al-datiya abu al-khayr, ‘abdullah hasan tali ‘asiri,” Sada al-Malahim 11, November 2009.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Questions We Should be Asking,” Inspire 3 (2010): p. 6. The author thanks Aaron Zelin for help in locating this source.