Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen last month by a Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) airstrike. This comes as a serious blow to Al Qaeda operations in the region. Al-Raymi has led the branch since 2015 and is linked to several deadly terror attacks over the past years. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Pennisula, or AQAP, has been involved in the Yemen Crisis since its onset in early 2011.
The 41-year old Yemeni militant was killed in January but the Trump administration held off from announcing his death until it could be confirmed. The White House released a statement saying: “His death further degrades AQAP and the global al-Qa’ida movement, and it brings us closer to eliminating the threats these groups pose to our national security….The United States, our interests, and our allies are safer as a result of his death. We will continue to protect the American people by tracking down and eliminating terrorists who seek to do us harm.” AQAP has given no official word yet on the emir’s status nor have they confirmed a successor.
The death of the Al Qaeda leader comes as a setback to the organization but the fact that the news barely registers on official channels is more indicative of a deeper problem in terms of US policy in Yemen. Currently, Yemen is embroiled in a civil war that has left more than one hundred thousand dead as well as countless others at risk as a result of famine. It is, by all measures, experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises of the decade. This crisis is a direct result of fighting between a Saudi-led coalition, the recognized government of Yemen, and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels which now control much of the country. Under these conditions, Al Qaeda has flourished, taking vast swathes of land and operating practically unopposed. The Saudis have done very little to counter them and instead concentrate on fighting the Houthis. All the while the U.S. has provided logistical and intelligence support to the coalition, yet this support only helps to deepen the crisis and further the power vacuum that allows AQAP to grow. Targeting Al Qaeda leaders hinders the organization, but does not prevent them from operating entirely. The fact is that the U.S. is directly contributing to instability in the country. Military intervention helped to create the Yemeni crisis and no amount of airstrikes or special forces raids can undo the damage caused.
The Yemen civil war is a complex issue with multiple sides and an even greater number of foreign parties seeking to exert their influence. The conflict began in 2015 although its roots go back far longer. Yemen is a country beset by many religious, ethnic, and ideological divides and these are strongest in the Northwest region where a popular Zaidi movement known as the Houthis gained influence. They waged several low-level insurgencies against the government throughout the 2000s and in 2014 gained significant clout within the government. Then-President of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi proposed splitting the country into six federal regions in 2015. The Houthis, unhappy with the move, began a new insurgency with the support of the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi was eventually forced to flee to Saudi Arabia and, at his request, the Saudis launched a military incursion into Yemen to stop the advance of Houthi rebels. Although the campaign initially enjoyed widespread support from the international community, it fell out of favour when it became clear that the Saudis frequently targeted civilian areas and that their efforts resulted in exceedingly high casualties among non-combatants. Five years onwards, the conflict has become a unmoving stalemate while nearly seventy percent of the population remains food insecure per UN estimates.
These are the conditions that have allowed Al Qaeda to thrive in Yemen and take entire provinces. The government in Yemen is, for all intents and purposes, non-functioning. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting, with more likely to follow as the conflict drags on. Yemen is being torn asunder by proxy war. As much as the United States may try to chip away at organizations like Al Qaeda in Yemen, they will never succeed in eliminating them so long as they support the Saudis’ campaign. Thus far, countless ceasefires have been enacted and have subsequently either expired or failed. Some modicum of law and order must be regained to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach the Yemeni population. Even more so, the conflict must be reined-in and its belligerents made to find some common ground. Until that happens, Al-Qaeda and similar groups will continue to thrive on the lawlessness in Yemen.
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