The CIA, AQAP, and the Never-Ending Excuse To Bomb Yemen

On January 30th, the US launched an R9X flying Ginsu knife bomb from a drone, killing Hassan al-Hadrami, the current leader of AQAP in Yemen, marking one of the few times this weapon has been used in combat. It is essential to highlight the history of the men who founded AQAP because they are endlessly used as an excuse for US military actions in Yemen and the UN-sanctioned blockade that has devastated Yemen for the last eight years. Nasser al-Wahishi became the de facto leader of AQAP when the previous leader Abu Ali al-Harithi was killed by a CIA drone strike in 2002. Wahishi was Osama bin Laden’s secretary from 1999 to 2001. Wahishi was ironically arrested leaving Afghanistan in the early 2000s by Iranian authorities at the border between Afghanistan and Iran. Wahishi was held without charge for two years by Iran and turned over to Yemen sometime between 2002 and 2003. Wahishi escaped in 2006 by tunneling from his cell to a nearby mosque along with Qasim al-Raymi and Jaber Elbaneh.

Three years after their escape, Wahishi appeared in a video with Qasim al-Raymi announcing that Yemen’s branch of Al-Qaeda was merging with Saudi Arabia’s branch of Al-Qaeda led by Said Ali al-Shihri to create Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Qasim al-Raymi was a trainer at the Al-Farooq training camp in Afghanistan during and after Operation Cyclone. Said Ali al-Shihri was a Saudi intelligence officer (GID) from 1993 to 1997 who traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, where he was arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

We know a lot about Said Ali Shihri’s past because he held was at Gitmo from January 2002 to April 2007. According to Department of Defense documents, Shihri stated he obtained permission from the Saudi travel ministry to go to Pakistan for a month in late August 2001. Two weeks later, Shihri gets summoned to the Saudi Embassy in Lahore, where he meets a man listed in documents as a Saudi diplomat named Abu Faisal. The DoD document states that Abu Faisal advised Shihri to go to the Saudi Red Crescent Hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, and meet with the director because they needed help. The document confusingly lists the hospital director as a known facilitator to Al Qaeda and a foreign intelligence officer.

Shihri spent five years at Guantanamo Bay, then got repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and sent to a rehabilitation and reintegration program for former “jihadists” partially funded by the United States. The prisons in Saudi Arabia include cells with televisions mounted in the corner that feed lectures and speeches from Sunni clerics and plays Wahabi religious content. According to a study by the terror tracking spook group creepily named Jamestown, the Saudi conversion camps are humane, and cameras ensure no abuse happens.

Shihri’s family in Saudi Arabia claims he was doing fine for about a month after being released from a Saudi rehabilitation camp. He showed no signs of extremism until Raymi visited Shihri at his parent’s home in Saudi Arabia. Shihri left his wife and child with his in-laws and fled to Yemen two weeks later, where he appeared in a video with Al-Awlaki, Raymi, and Wahishi claiming that the Saudi branch Al-Qaeda has merged with Yemen’s branch of Al-Qaeda to form AQAP. The CIA claims in the documents that Shihri was lying about his story because it was identical to other Saudi nationals injured near the Pakistan border during the bombardment of Afghanistan after 9/11.

One common denominator among all the men involved in AQAP is that most went to Afghanistan between 1979 and 1992 and got training from the CIA and MI6 as part of Operation Cyclone; this is public knowledge. Most men were later captured as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program by the CIA’s Special Activities Division or authorities in the Middle East.

Since the mysterious hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999, which ended in a Taliban prison swap, there have been 22 terrorist prison breaks in 24 years, freeing an estimated 7,428 suspected terrorists in the MENA region if you add up all the prison breaks over the years. Many people may remember the infamous Benghazi attack and all the fallout that ensued and may not remember that there was a jailbreak less than a year later when the same Ansar al-Sharia struck again and attacked a prison in Benghazi, freeing 1,117 al-Qaeda fighters.

Two years after the USS Cole Bombing, Al Qaeda attacked a prison in Aden, freeing eleven Al Qaeda members accused of being involved in the USS Cole bombing. Since the prison break in 2003, a pattern emerged in Yemen of Al Qaeda fighters attacking prisons and freeing Al Qaeda members with prison breaks in 2006, 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. In the Sanaa prison break in 2006, intriguing characters escaped, including the future founder of AQAP, Nasser al-Wahishi, former Operation Cyclone trainer Qasim al-Raymi and Jaber Elbaneh. Jaber Elbaneh is a Yemeni American and part of the Lackawanna Six, a falsely accused terror cell from Lackawanna, New York.

Yemen had a terrible habit of putting large groups of inmates in the same cell. The men allegedly distracted the guards by playing football as teams of two dug a tunnel out of prison with a sharpened broomstick. The tunnel led to a women’s bathroom at a mosque down the road and drew international concern because the prison is a high-security prison for Yemen’s most dangerous criminals. No media outlets ever questioned the practicality or sheer physics of digging a tunnel with just a broomstick.

On December 17th, 2009, the United States failed to kill Qasim al-Raymi, Nasser al-Wahishi, and Ali al-Shihri in a drone strike after receiving intelligence that the leaders of AQAP were in Shawba province in southern Yemen to meet the infamous Yemeni-American Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki. The AQAP has been used to justify drone strikes in Yemen for over twenty years in what the US called the Yemen Option. The Yemen Option became the norm for all US military actions in Yemen, including the 2011 CIA drone strikes that killed American citizens Anwar Al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki two weeks later. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was eating lunch with two cousins who died in the attack. Journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about Obama’s kill list of US citizens abroad in 2011. The best line, however, is a quote from a John Bolton opinion piece after these drone attacks that killed three American citizens.

“This does not mean the United States acts lawlessly. Quite the contrary. But in war, including against international terrorism, we operate under a legal framework very different from criminal law, and for good and sufficient reasons. What George W Bush started doctrinally, Barack Obama has now completed.”

Very few people know that Anwar Al-Awlaki is not the first American citizen to be killed by a drone strike. The first American to be killed by a drone strike was Yemeni American Kamal Derwish. On November 3rd, 2002, Derwish and five other men, including the leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen at the time, Abu Ali al-Harithi, hopped in a rickety old SUV and set off for the desert outside Marib to meet someone.

The vehicle’s driver spoke on a satellite phone with the person they were supposed to meet in the desert. The driver asked the person on the phone why he couldn’t see them if they were both at the meeting spot. At that moment, a Hellfire missile was fired from a CIA RQ-1 Predator Drone, killing all six men in the car. The drone strike in 2002 drew condemnation because it was the first time a drone strike killed an American citizen. According to media reports, George Tenet ordered CIA teams stationed in Djibouti to conduct the drone strike and did not move to arrest the men because Yemen was not complying with the US then.

According to Dina Temple-Raston’s book The Jihad Next Door, mainstream media would back up the CIA’s killing of Derwish by painting the Lackawanna Six as a bomb-plotting terror sleeper cell when they were just normal American college kids. Four of them were married with children, and all of them had no criminal records. Media outlets claimed the group attended religious sermons at Derwish’s apartment. However, the Lackawanna Six claim they hung out at that apartment, ate pizza, and played video games long before Derwish moved in. The group traveled to Pakistan in 2000 on a religious pilgrimage.

Jaber Elbaneh and Kamal Derwish may have been extremists, but there has never been one iota of evidence proving that the Lackawanna Six were terrorists. The sad story surrounding the Lackawanna Six is a small example of the Islamophobic prosecutions of young Muslim Americans under the facade of fighting terrorism. Over the last 22 years, fear has been fomented among post-9/11 xenophobic counter-jihadist propaganda spewers, hell-bent on painting young American Muslims who study the Quran or speak out about America’s foreign policy as “terrorists.”

In Arabic, Jihad means to strive or struggle, and only under Sharia law does Jihad mean an armed struggle against non-believers. Jihad is mentioned numerous times in the Quran, but never in a violent way, despite the meaning of Jihad being misconstrued over time.

  • Core to all Muslims is the Five Pillars and Six Articles of Faith.
  • Jihad is not a Pillar of Islam nor an Article of Faith.

The attacks on 9/11 were such a shock to people that for decades military actions conducted in the Middle East by the Western world had a numbing effect on the masses. Recently the war in Ukraine has drawn international attention as people are rightfully outraged when hospitals or apartment buildings are destroyed and the overall carnage of war. The same thing has been happening in the Middle East and North Africa since the War on Terror was launched over 22 years ago, and we have yet to see the colors of their flags light the Eifel Tower or get plastered all over social media accounts. There have been no heartwarming stories about food drives for starving Yemenis or Yemeni families being relocated to the US.

Our moral obligation as journalists is to be the voice of the voiceless, to expose when global powers conspire to overthrow governments and kill innocent men, women, and children. We adamantly call out the imperialistic schemes of hegemonic states, but it seems we have forgotten about Yemen. The same warmongers who lied to the world about Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are lying to the world about Yemen. The people of Yemen have stood firm in the face of one of the worse humanitarian crises in the world. Despite all odds, they have not broken as some of the most powerful nations wage a proxy war over Yemen’s natural resources and the wealthy geostrategic waters surrounding the country. Vietnam taught us to know thy enemy, but when the first plane struck on September 11th, we forgot the meaning of that phrase. It’s time for the world to show Yemen’s people we care. It’s time for us to stand with the people of Yemen and demand that our respective governments end this war and send aid to Yemen, not arms.

Joziah Thayer is a researcher, writer, and antiwar activist from New England. He founded, an unmonetized research based information site to combat mainstream narratives that often mislead the public and the #OpYemen an online campaign to inform the world of the ongoing atrocities in Yemen.