Tracking Yemen’s 23 Escaped Jihadi Operatives – Part 1

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 18

In mid-September, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued a stern warning to the Wa’ilah tribe in northern Yemen: turn over the six al-Qaeda suspects you are sheltering or face serious repercussions (al-Wasat, September 12). The six men that Saleh believes have found refuge with the tribe near the Saudi border are the remnants of a group of 23 prisoners that escaped from a Yemeni political security prison on February 3, 2006. The prisoners escaped by tunneling out of their cell and into a neighboring mosque, which has since been detailed in a lengthy narrative written by one of the escapees and published by the Yemeni paper al-Ghad. The escapees included a number of prominent al-Qaeda militants, among whom were individuals convicted of carrying out attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and on the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002.

Six of these suspects have since been killed in clashes with Yemeni or U.S. forces, 11 have either turned themselves back in to authorities or have been recaptured and six of the suspects remain at large. Many of these individuals have continued to fight for al-Qaeda since their escape, and one of them, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, has since been named the new head of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Despite differences of age and background, the 23 men who were being held in the cell were linked together through shared experiences. Nearly half of the escapees, 11, were born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents. Several of the men were arrested in late 2002 after a series of bombings in Sanaa and Marib. Seven of these men were part of a 15-man cell that was later charged with planning to attack five foreign embassies as well as to assassinate the then U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull. Three of the men were convicted of being part of an 11-man cell that was charged with plotting to carry out attacks in Yemen and abroad. Among the escapees, there are also two sets of brothers, Hizam and Arif Mujali and Mansur and Zakariya al-Bayhani, who are themselves brothers of Ghalib and Tawfiq al-Bayhani, who are currently in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Two other escapees, Qasim al-Raymi and Fawaz al-Rabay’I, also have brothers in Guantanamo.

This two-part series presents a biographical sketch of each escapee, along with his current status.

The Dead

Umar Sayd Hasan Jarallah (1979-2006): Jarallah was from the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah. Jarallah was also known as Abdullah al-Gharib and Ibn Hafiz. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in February 2005 for his role in the attack on the Limburg. Along with al-‘Umda, Huwaydi and Zayd, Jarallah was hidden for one month following their escape by Muhammad Hajir (22nd May, April 29). He killed himself along with Ahmad Muhamad al-Abiyad in a failed suicide attack on an oil facility in Marib on September 15, 2006. One guard was killed in the attack on the Safir facility (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 21, 2006).

Shafiq Ahmad Umar Zayd (?-2006): Zayd was born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents and is known by the kunya Abu Abdullah. He was extradited to Yemen from Saudi Arabia along with two other individuals in 2003. He was part of an 11-man cell, which was charged with forging passports, weapons and explosives possession, planning to travel to Iraq and forming an armed gang to carry out attacks in Yemen. Along with Mansur al-Bayhani and Abdullah al-Wada’i, he was convicted only of forging passports. Ibrahim al-Muqri, who was part of the same trial, was cleared of all charges (Yemen Times, March 24-27, 2005). All of the men, however, remained in prison until they managed to escape in February 2006. As was mentioned above, Zayd was sheltered by Muhammad Hajir for one month following his escape. He killed himself along with Hashim Khalid al-‘Iraqi in a failed suicide attack on an oil port in Hadramawt on September 15, 2006.

Fawaz Yahya Hasan al-Rabay’i (1979-2006): Al-Rabay’i was born in Saudi Arabia, the third of four brothers and four sisters (News Yemen, October 9, 2006). He is also known by the kunya Furqan al-Tajayki (al-Ghad, October 2006). He attended al-Falah school in Saudi Arabia, where he learned to recite the Quran. Along with nearly one million Yemenis, the family was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1990 as a result of Yemen’s support for Saddam Hussein following his invasion of Kuwait. His mother is known as Umm Hasan, after her oldest son. Hasan is a bus driver with six children. According to his family, Hasan is no longer close to them, as he was arrested on two separate occasions in order to put pressure on his younger brothers. Hasan complained that his brothers were trouble makers, and that when he was in jail his children went hungry.

The second brother, Abu Bakr, is currently awaiting sentencing in Yemen for his role in a series of al-Qaeda plots. The youngest brother, Salman, is being held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay (News Yemen, October 9, 2006). According to his father, he was sent to Afghanistan by his family to search for Fawaz, and was subsequently arrested and turned over to the United States. His father denies that either Abu Bakr or Salman have any links to al-Qaeda (News Yemen, October 9, 2006).

During the late 1990s, al-Rabay’i took a job in the personnel department in the presidential office in Yemen. In early 2000, he traveled to Afghanistan with two other men, including a former agent in Yemen’s Political Security Organization (News Yemen, October 9, 2006). Like many young men who head off to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, al-Rabay’i did not tell his family where he was going. Later, he called his father, Yahya, to tell him that he was in Afghanistan. The family claims that they knew nothing of his activities in Afghanistan, although he did mention to his father that his salary contradicted Islamic law and that his goal was to die as a martyr (News Yemen, October 9, 2006). According to one source, al-Rabay’i trained with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan (al-Ghad, October 2006). He is also known to have spent time with at least two of the September 11 hijackers, Muhammad Atta and Zayd Jarah (al-Ghad, October 2006).

Al-Rabay’i spent one year in Afghanistan before returning to Yemen in 2001, as the head of a 12-man cell (News Yemen, October 9, 2006). In 2002, the United States asked Yemen to arrest him on the suspicion of belonging to al-Qaeda. He escaped security forces two separate times that year before finally being captured in 2003. In August, he managed to escape a raid on his house in Sanaa dressed only in his pajamas (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 2, 2006). The raid did result in the death of one member of his cell, Samir al-Hada’. He also escaped from a security checkpoint, when the car he and Hizam Mujali were traveling in was stopped in the southern governorate of Abyan. Instead of allowing their car to be searched, the two shot one of the two soldiers, Hamid Khasruf, manning the checkpoint and fled (Yemen Times, April 7-13, 2004). The pair was later arrested in March 2003 in Marib (BBC, April 5, 2003). During the time that al-Rabay’i was on the run, he was sheltered by different tribes in Marib and Abyan.

On August 30, 2004, al-Rabay’i was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attacking a Hunt Oil helicopter in November 2002, which was reportedly done with the authorization of Abu Ali al-Harithi (Yemen Times, May 31-June 2, 2004). He was also fined 18.3 million Yemeni riyals, roughly $99,450, for his role in a 2002 attack on the Civil Aviation Authority building in Sanaa (News Yemen, October 1, 2006). Six months later, in February 2005, al-Rabay’i was again on trial for his role in the attack on the French oil tanker, Limburg, and for killing a soldier. The court sentenced him to death on these charges. During his trial, al-Rabay’i frequently alleged that he was being tortured by Yemeni security officers (Yemen Times, December 27-January 2, 2004-2005). He did, however, find time during his trial to arrange to be married to a daughter of Yahya Salih Mujali, the brother of Hizam and Arif (News Yemen, October 9, 2006).

Following his escape from the security prison in February 2006, he was charged with planning the dual suicide attacks in Marib and Hadramawt on September 15, 2006. This operation was partially funded by four million Saudi riyals that al-Rabay’i received from Bandar al-Akwa through Said al-‘Akbar. Both al-Akwa and al-‘Akbar are currently awaiting sentencing for their roles in the attack (22nd May, April 29). During this time, he also paid a visit to his father, Yahya, who was in the hospital. According to reports that surfaced after his death, al-Rabay’i did not wear a disguise when he made the visit (News Yemen, October 9, 2006). Al-Rabay’i was killed on October 1, 2006 along with Muhammad al-Daylami during an early morning shoot-out with Yemeni security forces in the Bani Hashish region just north of Sanaa. In a story about the escapees, the Yemeni newspaper al-Ghad mentioned that some sources claim that al-Rabay’i was murdered in “cold blood” after he surrendered himself to soldiers (al-Ghad, June 25). Security forces also arrested three individuals it claimed had assisted the pair (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 2, 2006).

Muhammad Ahmad Abdullah al-Daylami (c.1978-2006): Al-Daylami was charged with participating in the November 2002 attack on a Hunt Oil helicopter, planning to attack five foreign embassies and a 2003 plot to assassinate Edmund Hull, the U.S. ambassador in Yemen. He was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2005. In October 2006, he was killed along with Fawaz al-Rabay’i in a shootout with Yemeni security forces in the region of Bani Hashish.

Yasir Nasir Ali al-Hamayqani (c.1978-2007): Al-Hamayqani was also known by the kunya Abu Khalid. He was charged with traveling to Iraq. Al-Hamayqani was killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces in the Sabah district of the southern governorate of Abyan on January 15 (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 17). According to a security official, al-Hamayqani was in possession of a machine gun and two hand grenades when he was surrounded by security forces. He managed to wound two officers before he was killed (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 17).

Mansur Nasir ‘Awadh al-Bayhani (1974-2007): Al-Bayhani was born in 1974 in the city of Tabuk in Saudi Arabia to a Yemeni migrant worker from al-Rida’a in the governorate of al-Baydha. He took his kunya, Abu ‘Assam al-Tabuki, from his boyhood home. Mansur’s brother, Zakariya, was also among the escapees. Additionally, both his older brother Tawfiq (1972) and his younger brother Ghalib (1980) are currently in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Al-Bayhani made his way to Afghanistan via Pakistan in the 1990s, where he joined the Taliban. Later that decade, he was part of Samir Salih Abdullah al-Suwaylim’s Arab brigade that fought in Chechnya against Russian forces. During their time in Chechnya, al-Suwaylim, who was better known as al-Khattab, was poisoned by Russian security forces, while al-Bayhani was wounded in the right eye. Following the death of Suwaylim, he traveled back to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces, before returning to Saudi Arabia where he was arrested and extradited along with five companions, including his brother Zakariya, to Yemen.

Al-Bayhani was eventually brought to trial, along with 10 others, on charges of forging passports, weapons and explosives possession, planning to travel to Iraq and forming an armed gang to carry out attacks in Yemen. He was acquitted in March 2005 of all charges save for forging Saudi, Iraqi and Yemeni passports (Yemen Times, March 24-27, 2005). Shafiq ‘Umar and Abdullah al-Wada’i were also convicted of forging passports. Ibrahim al-Muqri, who was part of the same trial, was acquitted of all charges. All of the men, however, remained in prison until they managed to escape in February 2006. Al-Bayhani later turned himself in to Yemeni authorities, and was later released following a security guarantee. Mansur eventually made his way to Somalia, where he was killed in a U.S. naval strike by the USS Chafee on June 2, 2007.

** Part Two of this article will examine those suspects who have surrendered or were captured and those who are still at large.