Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) appointed longtime commander Qasim al-Rimi as its new leader, according to a video released by the group’s senior leadership on Tuesday. Al-Rimi played an integral role in establishing AQAP from other radical Islamists groups in 2009, and has helped it become of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations.
Al-Rimi’s replaces Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen late last week. Al-Wuhayshi served as a confidant of Osama bin Laden and brought to AQAP radical jihadist tactics he learned from fighting in Afghanistan. Al-Wuhayshi was once a Guantanamo Bay detainee but after being repatriated to a Yemeni prison he escaped in 2006. With 12 other escapees, he would go on to found the al-Qaeda affiliate. His death marks another blow to the organization’s core leadership, which also lost ideological mufti Ibrahim al-Rubaish in mid-April.
Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in April 2012. (Photo: AFP)
Al-Rimi is coming into power at a time where AQAP is enjoying a significant amount of freedom while Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels battle in western Yemen. AQAP has already gained influence over large swaths of land in the southeast of the country, giving it access to oil and millions of dollars of assets that were left behind in military bases. The sectarian nature of the conflict, with the Houthis fighters being predominantly Shiite, has also galvanized support for the group among Sunni tribesman who control rural areas.
Although U.S. airstrikes have been effective in killing a number of high ranking al-Qaeda officials, the conflict has harmed the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor the group. A U.S. military Special Forces facility in the country was also evacuated amid the chaos, with most of its hardware left behind. Just as in other failed states, Yemen’s continuing civil war is producing a relatively safe environment in which terrorist groups, including AQAP, can thrive despite individual assassinations of its leaders by the U.S.