White House says US killed Qassim al-Rimi, leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen

Phil Helsel

The White House said Thursday that the U.S. has killed Qassim al-Rimi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

A White House statement said al-Rimi was killed in Yemen but it did not say when. The counter-terrorism operation was conducted at the direction of President Donald Trump, it said.

Tribal leaders in Yemen said on Feb. 1 that a suspected U.S. drone strike destroyed a building housing al Qaeda militants the previous week, and Trump re-tweeted several tweets and media reports that seemed to offer confirmation that the Jan. 25 strike killed al-Rimi, the Associated Press reported at the time. The Arabian Peninsula branch is often referred to as AQAP.

"Under Rimi, AQAP committed unconscionable violence against civilians in Yemen and sought to conduct and inspire numerous attacks against the United States and our forces," the White House said in a statement.

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Al-Rimi was placed on the United States' most-wanted terrorist list after taking over al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate in 2015.

A 2017 Navy SEAL raid in Yemen also had a secret objective to capture or kill al-Rimi, but he survived, military and intelligence officials told NBC News at the time. Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens of SEAL Team 6, 14 al Qeda fighters and some civilians were killed in a firefight during that raid, officials have said.

A Pentagon spokesman at the time denied that al-Rimi was a target and said the military "never had any hope, intention or plan" of killing or capturing the AQAP leader in the operation.

Al-Rimi was also the deputy of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is said to be the leader of al Qaeda who succeeded Osama bin Laden, the White House statement said.

Al-Zawahiri is on the U.S. most wanted terrorists list and a reward of up to $25 million has been offered for information leading to his apprehension or conviction.

He has been indicted in the U.S. for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Those bombings killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, according to the FBI. Suicide bombers drove pickup trucks to the gates of the two embassies and detonated thousands of pounds of TNT in the attacks.

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Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, has been considered the most violent branch of al Qaeda. Al-Rimi had been said to be a key recruiter.

The White House statement said al-Rimi's death "further degrades" AQAP and al Qaeda, "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," the statement said.

Al-Rimi took over AQAP in 2015 after its former leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2015. Al Qaeda at that time named al-Rimi as his successor.