An American operation killed al-Qaeda’s top leader in Yemen last week, President Donald Trump confirmed Thursday night.
Qasim al-Raymi had been targeted in a botched US Navy SEAL raid in 2017, just days after Trump took office, that led to the death of the first American service member in combat under the new administration. Recently, the top lieutenant to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had taken credit for the shooting at a US naval air base in Florida that killed two American service members.
The Pentagon has long watched al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known by the acronym AQAP, that famously hatched a failed plot to blow up an American jetliner with an underwear bomb. A White House statement did not clarify the nature of the operation that killed Raymi, though The New York Times reported last week that the terror leader died in an airstrike.
Current and former US officials said Raymi, who became AQAP’s chief in 2015 and whose activities date back to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, is a very significant development. Trump said in a statement Thursday that the death “further degrades AQAP and the global al-Qaeda movement,” bringing the United States closer to eliminating the group.
Raymi’s actions “have killed countless innocent people including an attack on a hospital,” said Mick Mulroy, the Pentagon’s former top Middle East policy official during the Trump administration and now an ABC analyst. “The United States never forgets and their tenacity in pursuit removed this very dangerous person from the battlefield.”
Trump had previously appeared to confirm Raymi’s death by retweeting reports of the strike over the weekend. The Barack Obama administration also made the controversial decision to take out another leader of the group, Anwar al-Awlaki, in 2011. Awlaki, a popular radical ideologue who attracted followers to the group via the internet, was an American citizen and a former imam at a Virginia mosque.
But according to the United Nations’ panel of experts, the group has continued to have an impact by inspiring the jihadist movement “through online platforms, with publications relating to the conflict in Yemen and global jihad.” US and other counterterror efforts have mostly focused on Bayda and Shabwah, in the nation’s southern reaches.
Even as the pace of American airstrikes against AQAP has decreased, the UN assessed last year that its capacity had begun to diminish. The group has clashed with nascent Islamic State cells and has struggled to maintain control of Ansar al Sharia, formed as an al-Qaeda offshoot to capture the growing Yemeni youth movement after pro-democracy protests forced Ali Abdallah Saleh from power.
Experts said the group is likely to keep quiet about Raymi’s death until they find a suitable successor.
“I think [al-Qaeda] wants to avoid infighting so they’ll delay any announcements until they settle the succession process,” said Fernando Carvajal, a former member of the UN panel of experts for Yemen. "[Al-Qaeda] has always been utilized by the Yemeni regime as a force multiplier, not just to extract financial aid from the US and EU."