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U.S. targets leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen

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The United States conducted an airstrike against the leader of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is likely to have resulted in his death, according to people familiar with the matter.

The leader, Qassim al-Rimi, has been described as a possible heir to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to terrorism experts. His death would deal a significant blow to the terrorist organization, eliminating one of its most prominent members.

Over the years, U.S. officials have said the Yemen branch was especially dangerous because of its ability to produce sophisticated bombs and its ambition to launch attacks against targets in the United States and Europe.

In the past, U.S. officials have announced successful strikes on top al-Qaeda members only to learn later that they survived. While officials expressed confidence privately that Rimi was dead, they were reluctant to say so publicly.

But President Trump on Saturday appeared to confirm the United States had killed Rimi, retweeting an intelligence expert and a reporter who pointed to a targeted U.S. strike.

Officials familiar with the strike indicated it was carried out by the CIA and not the military. A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment.

The White House declined to confirm the operation or comment further.

The strike took place last weekend, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak for the record.

The U.S. government had been tracking Rimi for years and was particularly intent on targeting him since he took over leadership of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP as the Yemen branch is known, the official said. “He was extraordinarily adept at protecting himself, but ... clearly opened himself up for a strike,” the official said.

“This was the biggest counterterrorism accomplishment” in terms of weakening al-Qaeda “in quite a few years,” the official said.

Though Rimi had been focused more internally on Yemen lately, AQAP’s franchise was external operations and targeting the United States, the official noted. AQAP had developed an expertise in aviation plots, creating explosives that could be smuggled onto cargo planes in printer cartridges, for instance.

The operation against Rimi follows several strikes on high-profile terrorists and militants, as well as the targeted killing of a senior Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani.

There, too, Trump confirmed the operation obliquely, tweeting an image of the American flag after the United States conducted a drone strike against Soleimani in Iraq.

Trump’s Saturday morning retweets about Rimi, which he sent before playing a round of golf at his resort in Florida, included an analysis from Rita Katz, head of the independent SITE Intelligence Group. She wrote that the terrorist leader had almost certainly been “killed in a U.S. drone strike” on Jan. 24.

The Yemen branch, “although reduced in vitality in recent years, remains dangerous” and is becoming a rival to Houthi and Islamic State militants in the country, Katz had tweeted Friday.

Among Katz’s tweets that Trump retweeted was a link to a New York Times article, which was the first to point to a U.S. hand in the killing. Trump also retweeted an article from Yahoo News on the subject.

AQAP has suffered significant losses as American airstrikes have targeted bombmakers and other key members, officials and experts have said.

Local news reports in Yemen said that a senior al-Qaeda leader had been killed in a U.S. drone strike in January in the Wadi Ubaidah district, in central Yemen, but they didn’t identify him.

As of Saturday, al-Qaeda had not publicly confirmed Rimi’s death.

The Trump administration has stepped up efforts to kill prominent terrorists and militants, and Trump has often been the one to confirm successful strikes.

In September, Trump publicly confirmed that a U.S. operation had killed Hamza bin Laden, the son of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Experts have debated Hamza’s importance in the terrorist organization, but his death was a sign that Trump intended to aggressively pursue prominent figures.

The following month, Trump confirmed that the United States had killed a notorious AQAP bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, two years earlier. Al-Asiri’s death had been reported on in 2018. The president didn’t explain the delay in his remarks.

“The United States will continue to hunt down terrorists like al-Asiri until they no longer pose a threat to our great nation,” Trump said in a statement at the time.

Later that month, Trump revealed the most high-profile terrorist strike of his tenure, announcing in an address from the White House that the United States had killed Islamic State commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in what Trump called a “dangerous and daring” nighttime operation in Syria, involving U.S. helicopters and Special Operations troops.

Trump boasted of the U.S. operation and said Baghdadi had “died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering, screaming and crying all the way.”

Trump demurred when reporters asked how he knew what Baghdadi was doing and saying inside a tunnel moments before he blew himself up.

Trump had teased the Baghdadi operation in a tweet the night before his announcement: “Something very big has just happened!” At the time, the president had complained that he wasn’t getting sufficient credit for his domestic and foreign policy achievements, according to current and former administration officials.

The strike targeting the Yemen al-Qaeda chief is the second high-profile operation there in recent weeks.

On the day that Soleimani was struck, American forces also conducted an airstrike against Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander in Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter, who said that the strike did not result in his death.

John Hudson and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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