February 3, 2020
IntelBrief: United States Targets Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Leader in Yemen
U.S. officials have expressed confidence that a series of drone strikes in Yemen toward the end of January was successful in killing Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of al-Qaeda's most potent franchise groups. Al-Rimi was apparently killed in the Wadi Ubaidah district of Marib in central Yemen, east of Sana’a, a longtime stronghold for militants linked to al-Qaeda. Although no U.S. government spokesperson has officially confirmed al-Rimi's death, President Trump re-tweeted several articles referencing the strike over the weekend. The operation relied in part on critical human intelligence, or HUMINT, which was used to locate al-Rimi, who was then tracked by unmanned aerial systems over several months. AQAP has been degraded over the past several years, with its leadership, bomb-making experts, and top propagandists targeted by drone strikes and U.S. Special Forces raids. Still, even after losing several high-ranking militants, the group remains highly capable and dedicated to attacking the West.
AQAP has been the most adept of all the al-Qaeda franchises at effectively balancing local versus global objectives. Al-Rimi was named AQAP’s emir in June 2015 after serving as the group’s longtime military commander, and he spearheaded a strategy to build support among Yemen’s Sunni tribes by fighting against the Houthis and expanding AQAP’s influence in Abyan, Marib, and Shabwah governorates. In Yemen, AQAP follows al-Qaeda’s long-game strategy, attempting to blend in with the local population and remain covert. The group’s efforts have entailed creating a parallel organization under the name Ansar al-Sharia and the empowerment of local leaders and tribes, who are used as proxies in AQAP’s attempt to seize, hold, and control territory. To further build trust with local tribal partners, AQAP generally refrains from imposing exceedingly harsh forms of sharia law, in stark opposition to ISIS practices in its territories. It also seeks to solidify these partnerships through marriages of some AQAP fighters to brides of prominent tribal families.
When core al-Qaeda went years without being able to pull off a spectacular attack against the West, AQAP managed several ‘near misses’ against U.S. airliners, including the notorious underwear bomber plot and another plot against cargo planes with explosive-laden printer cartridges onboard. Both of these plots were linked to al-Rimi and AQAP’s master bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri (now deceased), once considered by former CIA Director David Petraeus to be ‘the world’s most dangerous man.’ In 2013, AQAP’s then-leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi was elevated to the position of al-Qaeda's general manager by its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a nod to the importance of AQAP amongst the orbit of al-Qaeda affiliates. The loss of al-Rimi is significant because he served as a bridge between pre- and post-9/11 al-Qaeda, a veteran of the group who spent time at the infamous al-Farouq training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Some have even speculated that al-Rimi could succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as the overall emir of al-Qaeda, as the organization begins planning for its succession, which became more complicated after the death of Hamza bin Laden. Khalid Batarfi could be a possible successor to al-Rimi as AQAP’s next emir. Other high-profile AQAP members, including Ibrahim al-Qawsi (aka Khubayb al-Sudani) and Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki, also retain influential roles in the organization.
In February 2017, al-Rimi was featured in an AQAP audiotape threatening President Trump. Several months after that, in May 2017, he appeared on video, encouraging AQAP supporters to seize opportunities to conduct 'easy and simple' attacks similar to the June 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre. In May 2010, al-Rimi was designated by the U.S. State Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224, the same month he was added to the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee’s Consolidated List of individuals associated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Even while focusing on issues most pressing to Yemeni tribesmen, AQAP still managed to play a role in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, France, in January 2015. The group also maintains an increasingly close relationship with Al-Shabaab in Somalia and has served before as an interlocutor between other franchises, including Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda elements in Syria. To prove its continued relevance, AQAP released an announcement claiming credit for the Pensacola terrorist attack conducted by Saudi national Mohammed Alshamrani.
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