Yemen says airstrike kills country’s al-Qaida military chief, 5 other operatives

By Ahmed Al-haj, AP
Friday, January 15, 2010

Yemen says airstrike kills al-Qaida military chief

SAN’A, Yemen — Yemeni warplanes struck outside a desert village near the border with Saudi Arabia on Friday, killing six al-Qaida operatives, including the group’s top military leader in the country, security officials said.

The military chief, who escaped a government attack targeting him last month, was one of Yemen’s most-wanted militants and had plotted to assassinate the U.S. ambassador.

Yemen, with the help of U.S. counterterrorism aid and training, has intensified an offensive against an al-Qaida offshoot that has dug in to pockets of the mountainous, impoverished nation, sometimes under the protection of powerful local tribes that have their own grievances with the weak government.

In an intensifying battle against al-Qaida on another front where Washington is deeply involved, Pakistani intelligence officials said Friday that a U.S. missile strike there killed one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, a man suspected in a deadly 1986 plane hijacking with a $5 million bounty on his head.

That Jan. 9 strike was part of the CIA-led missile campaign against militant targets in Pakistan’s insurgent-riddled tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear if the U.S. was directly involved in Friday’s strike in Yemen. The country’s government, which depends in part on the support of powerful Islamic radicals to maintain its fragile hold on power, is deeply wary of being seen as too closely allied with Washington.

Four of those killed were on Yemen’s list of most-wanted al-Qaida figures, including Qassim al-Raimi, the top military chief in the terrorist network’s offshoot in Yemen. The attack took place near the village of Yatama, about 118 miles (190 kilometers) northeast of the capital, San’a.

Yemen has wrongly reported his death in the past. A written statement from the government’s Supreme Security Committee said that this time it had intelligence that al-Raimi was among those in two cars that were destroyed in the airstrike on the edge of Jouf province.

Jouf’s provincial governor, Hussein Hazib, confirmed six al-Qaida militants were killed in the strike, but said he did not yet know their identities.

Al-Qaida’s Yemen and Saudi operations merged a year ago to form al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Raimi had been influential in strengthening the group.

“(Al-Raimi) is really the individual who has done most for (al-Qaida) in terms of rebuilding and reorganization,” said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University.

But while his death might be a victory for the U.S.-backed government, Johnsen said al-Qaida now has a durable enough infrastructure in Yemen to keep going.

“They don’t miss a beat; they can overcome,” he said. “This is an organization that has planned for these types of losses.”

In 2005, al-Raimi was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for plotting a bomb attack in the capital’s diplomatic quarter and planning to assassinate the American ambassador. Neither plot was carried out.

Al-Raimi escaped from prison in February of 2006 with 21 other militants who fled through a 200-yard tunnel that ended inside a mosque.

Also among the dead in Friday’s strike was Ammar al-Waeli, who was accused of involvement in a July 2007 suicide bombing that killed eight Spanish tourists and two Yemenis visiting a temple in central Yemen.

Al-Waeli was also suspected of having a role in the kidnapping of a German family and a British man who disappeared in June and have yet to be found.

The country on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula is beset by al-Qaida attacks, a five-year war between government forces and rebels in the north and a separatist movement in the once-independent south.

After al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner in December, U.S. officials announced they were more than doubling the $67 million in counterterrorism aid they gave to Yemen in 2009.

Yemen’s Interior Ministry stressed Friday that while its cooperation with the United States included training and intelligence sharing, it would not open its doors to forces from America or any other nation.

A group of prominent Muslim clerics, including one whom Washington has branded a spiritual mentor of Osama bin Laden, warned Thursday they will call for jihad, or holy war, if the U.S. sends troops to fight al-Qaida in Yemen.

President Barack Obama has said he does not plan to send American combat troops to Yemen.

In Pakistan, the U.S. has been pursuing a similar strategy but one with a more direct military role. It has pounded North Waziristan with missiles to try to subdue an area that has been a key sanctuary for a range of militant groups, including al-Qaida and factions focused on battling the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been resisting mounting U.S. pressure to wage an army offensive in the region.

The Jan. 9 missile strike killed Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim. The FBI’s Web site lists him as a Palestinian with possible Lebanese citizenship. Three Pakistani officials called him an al-Qaida member, but the FBI site says he was a member of the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist group.

Rahim is wanted for his alleged role in the Sept. 5, 1986, hijacking of a Pan American World Airways Flight during a stop in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, according to the FBI site.

Some 20 people, including two Americans, died during the hijacking.

The three Pakistani intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they lacked authority to speak to media on the record.

Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi in Cairo, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, and Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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