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US kills Qassim al-Raymi, leader of al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula

Qassim al-Raymi, the former leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Qassim al-Raymi, the former leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. © AFP

President Donald Trump confirmed Thursday that the US had killed the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – days after the jihadist group claimed responsibility for a December mass shooting at a US naval base. 

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The US "conducted a counterterrorism operation in Yemen that successfully eliminated Qasim al-Rimi, a founder and the leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)", Trump said in a White House statement.

AQAP claimed responsibility on Sunday for a December 6 shooting at US Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, in which a Saudi Air Force officer killed three American sailors.

Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide jihadist network's most dangerous branch.

The Sunni extremist group has thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Shiite rebels who control the capital.

"Under Rimi, AQAP committed unconscionable violence against civilians in Yemen and sought to conduct and inspire numerous attacks against the United States and our forces," Trump said.

"His death further degrades AQAP and the global al-Qa’ida movement, and it brings us closer to eliminating the threats these groups pose to our national security."

Trump did not give any details about the circumstances or the timing of the operation.

From Afghanistan to Yemen prison break

A senior al Qaeda figure whose jihadist experience dated back to the 1990s conflict in Afghanistan, where he ran terror training camps, Rimi returned to his native Yemen in the early 2000s.

He was arrested in 2005 over a plot to kill the US ambassador in Yemen, but managed to escape his Sanaa jail the next year with 22 other prisoners, including Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who later became the emir of AQAP.

Following Wuhayshi’s killing in a June 2015 US drone strike, Rimi was promoted to leader of the group.

“He was one of the founders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He joined Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan when he was in his 20s and he was the one who claimed the [December 2019] attack in Pensacola,” said Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadism.  

Rimi was particularly active in 2009, when AQAP attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airline flight on Christmas Day by packing explosives in the underwear of a Nigerian operative.

“This group was one of the most active in attacking American interests because beyond propaganda, they had the means to do so, they had the human skills to do so,” explained Nasr.

Rimi’s death represented a blow for al Qaeda, which has lost a number of prominent branch emirs and commanders to US drone strikes in recent years, said Nasr. “It’s weakening al Qaeda, which today doesn’t have the same ability to attack Western interests as before. It will also make the Islamic State group stronger in Yemen because once you kill those prominent leaders, the lower level commanders don’t have the same relationships between each other and it will boost the fight between the groups,” he explained. “It will, in an indirect way, make the Islamic State group stronger in Yemen.”

Claiming ‘hero’ who conducted Pensacola attack

Rimi’s last public message was released last weekend, when AQAP posted an audio message claiming the deadly December 2019 Pensacola attack.

In his message, Rimi praised the attacker, Mohammed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who was training in the US. “For several years, our hero moved between several US military bases in America to select and contemplate his best and fattest target,” the SITE monitoring group quoted him as saying.

The Twitter account that posted the manifesto also condemned US support for Israel and included a quote from bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman was quick to denounce the shooting as a "heinous crime" and said the gunman "does not represent the Saudi people".

Around 850 Saudis are among the 5,000 foreign military personnel being trained in the United States.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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