January 15th Strike: Targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Leaders and Implications
On January 15, an air strike in northern Yemen killed six al Qaeda operatives including a very senior leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP), Qasim al Raymi, also known as Abu Hurayrah. The strike comes one day after Yemen declared an open war on al Qaeda militants “whenever or wherever.” Less than a month ago, Yemen executed strikes in Abyan, Sana'a, and Shabwah provinces on AQAP strongholds and training camps, reportedly killing around sixty al Qaeda militants. In addition, Yemeni security forces have conducted near-daily operations against AQAP operatives. Yemen’s crackdown on al Qaeda began on December 17, 2009, but the failed Christmas Day attack on the NWA Flight 253 drew international attention to the growing threat AQAP poses in Yemen. Increased pressure to address terrorism from the international community, especially from the U.S. and a clear willingness to give support to Yemen both militarily and financially have created strong incentives for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to intensify his efforts against AQAP.
Targeted: Qasim al Raymi
Yemeni government media outlets report that the Yemeni Air Force executed a strike on an al Qaeda target at 2:30 pm on January 15, 2010. The strike successfully hit the target, two cars traveling in the area between Sa’ada and al Jawf provinces, reportedly near the village of Yatama. Eight al Qaeda militants were in the two cars – six were killed and two escaped, pursued by Yemeni security forces. Military sources have reported that six of those in the cars were: Qasim al Raymi, the military commander of AQAP; Amar al Waili, an arms dealer; Aidh al Shabwani, the cell leader in Ma’rib province; Abu Ayman al Masri, an Egyptian who has been on Yemen’s most-wanted list for years; Saleh al Tays and Abdullah Hadi al Tays. If these deaths are confirmed, they could constitute a significant blow to the organizational structure of AQAP.
Qasim al Raymi, also known as Abu Hurayrah al Sana’ani, was instrumental in the re-establishment of al Qaeda in Yemen, and later, in the formation of AQAP. Al Raymi was arrested by Yemeni security forces for connections to a terrorist cell and sentenced to five years in prison on August 30, 2004. He escaped in the February 3, 2006 Yemeni jailbreak, along with twenty-two others. On June 21, 2007, al Raymi declared Nasser al Wahayshi, who was also one of the February 2006 escapees, the head of al Qaeda in Yemen. Shortly thereafter, on August 2, 2007, Yemen listed al Raymi as one of the men involved in a ten-man cell responsible for the July 2, 2007 suicide bombing in Ma’rib that killed eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers. Al Raymi was one of four al Qaeda members who appeared in the January 23, 2009 video that announced the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda. The government later accused al Raymi of running the training camp in Abyan province, and he was the target in the December 17, 2009 strike, but he managed to escape. On January 4, 2010, al Raymi was listed as a “likely” casualty in an al Qaeda raid, a claim that later proved to be unfounded. This time, Yemeni officials are saying that they are “almost certain” that al Raymi has been killed.
Al Raymi’s death, if confirmed, stands out as the most significant among those targeted on January 15 because of his position within the organizational structure of AQAP. Many analysts describe him as one of AQAP’s most dangerous and influential men. Furthermore, he has had direct contact with Osama bin Laden and has some religious education. The eighth issue of AQAP’s publication, “Echo of Epics,” mentions al Raymi’s training as a mujahid in al Farouq camp in Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden, and al Raymi’s religious education, saying that he graduated from a religious institution in 1997. Al Raymi has become part of the public image of AQAP in Yemen and his death will affect AQAP as an organization.
The effect of al Raymi’s death, even if it is confirmed, will likely be temporary as long as the conditions that have allowed al Qaeda to flourish are left unaddressed. Just over seven years ago, on November 5, 2002, a U.S. Predator drone killed Abu Ali al Harithi, the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen at that time, along with five other al Qaeda operatives. By 2003, al Qaeda in Yemen was organizationally weak and unable to operate effectively. However, Nasser al Wahayshi and al Raymi reconstituted the organization after their February 2006 prison breakout, showing that simply killing al Qaeda leaders is unlikely to defeat the group permanently. An environment conducive to the growth of al Qaeda remained in Yemen after the 2002 strike and permitted its resurgence. Though al Raymi’s death will affect AQAP as an organization, al Qaeda has proven itself resilient. The conditions that have permitted al Qaeda’s growth, not just the organization itself, need to be targeted.
Conditions in Yemen have only deteriorated since al Qaeda’s resurgence in 2006 because of a failing economy and two separate challenges to the government. Currently, President Saleh faces two security threats that are more pressing to him than that of al Qaeda: the al Houthi rebellion in the north and the secessionist movement in the south. Yemen’s military is engaged in a full-scale counter-insurgency operation in Sa’ada province to suppress the Houthi rebellion, and there is an increased presence of security forces in the south because of the Southern Movement. Saleh apparently believes it would be too costly to redirect his resources towards battling al Qaeda when there are two more imminent threats. When looking for a partner in Saleh to help fight al Qaeda, the U.S. ought to be cognizant that he does not perceive AQAP to be the most direct threat to the government. In the same way that Saleh has recognized that U.S. interests lie in the destruction of AQAP and has taken steps to hunt down al Qaeda, the U.S. should recognize that Saleh’s interest lies in securing his regime’s stability, and should respond by providing financial and military support, without putting U.S. troops on the ground. Not only would financial and military support alleviate some of the strain on Saleh’s limited resources, but Saleh would also have the capacity to address al Qaeda. Finally, a comprehensive approach that included financial assistance would work to ameliorate the current conditions in Yemen, making it less likely that, once weakened, al Qaeda would be able to recover. Without such an approach, hunting down al Qaeda’s leadership will only be a temporary solution, and in a few years’ time, a new set of leaders will demand the U.S.’s attention again.
Note: Qasim al Raymi survived the strike, contrary to the initial reports.