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Yemen’s New al-Qaida Leader Emerges

  • Heather Murdock

FILES - A reproduction of a document released by the Yemeni Interior Ministry on January 15, 2010 shows two different undated portraits of Yemeni Qassem al-Rimi, the new military commander of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

FILES - A reproduction of a document released by the Yemeni Interior Ministry on January 15, 2010 shows two different undated portraits of Yemeni Qassem al-Rimi, the new military commander of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula announced its new leader Tuesday shortly after an al-Qaida video appeared on line saying U.S. airstrikes killed AQAP's chief last week along with two other members. But analysts say the group has in the past proved resilient and, in some ways, perceptions of al-Qaida in Yemen are shifting as it shares enemies with its enemies.

An al-Qaida spokesman reads a statement in a video released Tuesday saying Nasser al-Wuhayshi is dead and former Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula military leader Qasim al-Raymi is now in command.

Musa Shteiwi is the Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

“The loss of any leader is significant. But al-Qaida has proved over time that they are resilient, that they have others that can replace him. And al-Qaida never in any country ceased to exist because one of its leaders [was killed]. But definitely this is a blow for al-Qaida,” said Shteiwi.

The reportedly dead leader was a long time al-Qaida fighter, formerly with Osama bin Laden and led AQAP during attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives, including the deadly shootings of the Paris-based newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The new man in charge has a similar history and both were part of the 2006 jailbreak in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, when 23 al-Qaida members escaped from the country’s toughest political prison.

Shteiwi said the United States has recently slowed its fight with al-Qaida as it focuses on the so-called Islamic State. He said the airstrike may be meant as a message to Saudi-allied countries at war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“The United States has not changed its policy towards al-Qaida and the chaos in Yemen should not lead to supporting al-Qaida or using al-Qaida in the fight in Yemen,” said Shteiwi.

But as the war dragged on, with nearly three months of coalition airstrikes failing to force the Houthis - a sworn enemy of AQAP - to the negotiating table, political analyst Labib Kamhawi said the situation for the coalition was increasingly desperate.

“Saudis will not be able to defeat the Yemenis or the Houthis from the sky and they cannot win a war by combat on land. So it is a big mess for them. I do not know why they decided to handle it this way, but at the end of the day I think the Saudis were trapped into doing something that is not winnable,” said Kamhawi.

Extremist groups like al-Qaida are the biggest beneficiaries of the war in Yemen, he says, flourishing in the mayhem and finding recruits among those suffering.

But Shteiwi said the group also gained supporters as anger grew over the U.S. airstrikes or at least brings mainstream beliefs closer in line with extremist ideologies.

“This is a key to understanding what is happening in the region. Many people do not necessarily agree with the organization [AQAP]. But they do not agree with the United States attacking them. So they look at it as a foreign intervention,” he said.

And in Yemen’s wars, alliances have been shifting for decades. In the 1990s, al-Qaida fought on the side of the Sana’a government against rebels, but by 2010 the same government was bombing the group.

Likewise the Houthis were at war with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh for six years; now he is battling on the same team against the Saudi coalition, and al-Qaida.

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