Hamza Hendawi of AP
Published: Nov 4, 2010 20:11 Updated: Nov 4, 2010 20:11;
SANAA: Only four years after he and a band of militants made a daring escape from a Sanaa prison, Qassim Al-Raimi has become the dominant figure in Al-Qaeda’s most active franchise — the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The group’s military commander, Al-Raimi is thought to be the brains behind a series of attacks, including the foiled plot to mail bombs to the United States and multiple attacks against Yemen’s US-backed government. In writings and videos, he has vowed to topple the Sanaa regime and to strike America.
“His charisma and leadership skills have qualified him to be Al-Qaeda’s military dynamo,” said Nabil Al-Bakeery, a Yemeni expert on Al-Qaeda. “He is the one occupying the decision making position in the organization.”
Al-Raimi is thought to be hiding in the tough mountain terrain of Yemen’s central Marib province, according to Yemeni counterterrorism officials. He has a reputation as a master of disguise: The officials said he is believed to slip frequently into the capital, Sanaa, to meet with Al-Qaeda cells, or even visit family or friends on special occasions like weddings and funerals.
Faraj Hady, a suspected militant currently on trial for alleged Al-Qaeda links, testified last month in court that Al-Raimi, perfectly disguised as a woman, once traveled with him in a car from northeast Yemen to Sanaa.
Since 2007, the government has announced Al-Raimi’s death three times in strikes or clashes, most recently in January — each time wrong. Even on the run, he directs training camps in Yemen’s remote deserts and mountains, organizes cells and plans attacks at home and abroad, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
“Today’s battle, American leaders, is not just between you and the mujahedeen of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s between you and all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. You have united us with our people,” Al-Raimi wrote in the January edition of Sada Al-Malahem, or “Echo of the Epics,” the group’s online magazine. His message came after airstrikes in southern Yemen targeting Al-Qaeda bases that reportedly killed Yemeni civilians.
“Today, you have attacked us in our homes, so wait for the ills that will strike you in your homes,” he wrote, under his nom de guerre Abu Harira Al-Sanani. “We will come for you from behind, from your left and from your right to blow up the earth beneath your feet.”
US investigators believe that the explosives in the mail bomb plot disrupted last week were put together by an Al-Qaeda bomb-maker named Ibrahim Hassan Al-Asiri. But Yemeni officials say Al-Raimi likely oversaw the operation.
Two bombs in packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues were intercepted on flights in Britain and Dubai.
Al-Raimi, who is in his late 30s or early 40s, is also thought to have masterminded last year’s failed attempt by a suicide bomber to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Naif, the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism agency.
Al-Raimi’s senior status was clear even during his 2002-2006 stint in a Sanaa prison, where he was jailed alongside other Al-Qaeda militants. “He represented the inmates in negotiations with the prison officials over privileges and conditions,” said one official. “He was a threatening figure who scared prison guards. The main ward where Al-Qaeda leaders stayed was off limits to the guards.”
In 2006, Al-Raimi and 22 other Al-Qaeda inmates made a spectacular escape from the prison. The next July, a suicide bomber attacked tourists at a historic site in Marib province, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis, in an attack the government said Al-Raimi planned.
Many of the 23 have since been either killed or returned to prison, but those still at large constitute Al-Qaeda in Yemen’s core leadership — including its official leader, Nasser Al-Wahishi.
In 2009, Al-Wahishi announced the creation of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, combining Yemeni militants with those from the terror group’s Saudi branch. Al-Wahishi earned the leadership post likely because he was once a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, and Al-Raimi was named military chief.
Born in a village in the scenic mountainous region of Raima some 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Sanaa, Al-Raimi, the son of an army enlisted man, is thought to have dropped out of school and left home as a teenager to work in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida. He spent a year there, then is believed to have gone to the northern city of Saada.
Over the next 10 years, he disappeared. He spent part of the 1990s in Afghanistan, where he received military training from Al-Qaeda militants, according to Yemeni officials. He passed through Saudi Arabia, joining Al-Qaeda’s branch there and earning himself a spot on the Kingdom’s most wanted list of terrorists.
He surfaced in Yemen in 2002, when he was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly planning a suicide bombing that year against a French supertanker off the country’s Arabian Sea coast.
His most recent appearance came in a videotape posted on militant websites last month. In it, a man said to be Al-Raimi — bearded, turbaned and wearing a long beige tunic over baggy trousers — speaks amid footage of men with automatic rifles using US, British and Israeli flags for target practice.
In the tape, Al-Raimi announces the creation of the “Aden and Abyan Army” to overthrow President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s US-backed regime. Accusing Saleh of killing Muslim women and children on US behalf, he warned, “By doing so, stupid, you are digging your own grave.” He also added a chilling call: He urged fellow Muslims with experience in chemistry, electronics, electricity and physics to join Al-Qaeda.
New face of terror has Yemenis scratching their heads
Jeffrey Fleishman, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times November 7, 2010
Anwar Awlaki, whom U.S. authorities have linked to the Ft. Hood killings, is said to be hiding in the mountains in Yemen. But a sampling of men in Sana say they don’t know who he is, and some call him — and his Al Qaeda branch — a political invention
Is he a doctor? I don’t think I know him.”
Americans may regard the U.S.-born cleric with the beard and hard stare as a new face of terror, but when you mention Awlaki in the Yemeni capital, it’s as if you’ve asked someone to solve a complicated bit of arithmetic. Eyes narrow, faces scrunch.
“I don’t know who he is. I work all day and don’t watch a lot of TV,” said Ibrahim Abdulrab, standing over an ironing board with a pile of shirts at his feet.
The radical preacher is on the CIA‘s assassination list and is believed to be hiding with Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen’s mountainous tribal lands. He is implicated in a number of plots, including inspiring a U.S. Army psychiatrist who is charged with killing 13 people a year ago at Ft. Hood, Texas, and the recent attempt to blow up aircraft with packages of concealed explosives.
Internet videos, website manifestos and pundit rhetoric are splicing Awlaki into the American consciousness. But he is largely unknown here or referred to as an apparition hiding in a distant crevice. Even his Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is scoffed at by many as an invention, a ploy by Washington and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to advance larger agendas.
Rumors dart like sparrows across this city, flitting through conversations, sermons and newsrooms. Perceptions are shaped by conjecture and thinly drawn asides. They highlight the ideological and emotional divides between the U.S. and the Middle East on matters ranging from drone strikes in Pakistan to the elusive characters and strange blueprints of global terrorism.
“Al Qaeda in Yemen? A myth,” said Mohammed Asari, a university student dressed in a blue blazer and sitting on a motorcycle. “I haven’t seen them. They’re mentioned on the news, but I don’t trust the news. It’s full of liars.”
He slipped on his sunglasses and rode away, just as another student, Isa Ahmed, strolled into an alley past rows of books for sale on blankets. “Al Qaeda is not real,” he said. “They’ve been created for political reasons. We don’t know what’s going on or what exists and what doesn’t.”
In an electronics store, pecking away at a laptop on a slow morning before prayers, Khaled Farih offered a theory.
“Al Qaeda is an Israeli gang using Islam as a cover,” he said. “They want to defame Islam through terrorist acts. Yemen has a lot of enemies and they’re all looking for gaps to slip through and destroy us. Al Qaeda might also be the work of the secessionists who want to divide Yemen.”
Many Yemenis believe that Saleh, a shrewd tribesman who has ridden atop this country’s rambunctious politics for three decades, is inflating the strength of Al Qaeda’s regional branch as a ruse to attract Western aid. His government has attempted to link terrorist elements to an intensifying separatist movement in the south that analysts fear could ignite a civil war.
But nobody knows; figuring out reality here is like reading road signs in the fog. Besides, there are too many other problems: joblessness, corruption, malnutrition, human rights abuses and questions like how a man such as Abdulrab, who charges about 24 cents for each shirt he irons, feeds his family.
Don’t complain too loudly. The beggar at your elbow may be a spy. Interlopers are everywhere, listening, making phone calls. Or so it seems. Yemenis love intrigue, folding and unfolding possibilities, sketching scenarios to fit a confusing world beyond the old city’s fortress walls.
But what of Awlaki? A Yemeni judge on Saturday ordered his “forcible arrest.” But despite his website and eloquent missives, Awlaki, known for public relations savvy and quoting from the Koran and Charles Dickens, drew barely a hint of recognition from shopkeepers, waiters and computer engineers along Sana’s streets and alleys.
“Never heard of him,” said Adnan Lotef, who served flat bread and tin plates of beans at a cafe not far from men with paint rollers and shovels waiting on corners and hoping for a day’s work.
Down the sidewalk, past a stand of bags of yesterday’s popcorn, a kettle steamed in a tea shop. Asad Hussein had no customers, but customers come and go, and much of life is spent in the lulls between.
He took a seat.
“Anwar Awlaki?” he said. “Yes, I know who he is. He is not of Islam. He is not a real Muslim. His behavior against the world is not right. We should do no harm to one another. It’s Allah who should decide whether we go to heaven or hell, not Awlaki.”