SAN’A, Yemen—Only four years after he and a band of militants made a daring escape from a San’a prison, Qassim al-Raimi has become the dominant figure in al-Qaida’s most active franchise—the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The group’s military commander, al-Raimi is thought to be the brains behind a series of attacks, including the foiled plot to mail bombs to the United States and multiple attacks against Yemen’s U.S.-backed government. In writings and videos, he has vowed to topple the San’a regime and to strike America.
“His charisma and leadership skills have qualified him to be al-Qaida’s military dynamo,” said Nabil al-Bakeery, a Yemeni expert on al-Qaida. “He is the one occupying the decision making position in the organization.”
Al-Raimi is thought to be hiding in the tough mountain terrain of Yemen’s central Marib province, according to Yemeni counterterrorism officials. He has a reputation as a master of disguise: The officials said he is believed to slip frequently into the capital, San’a, to meet with al-Qaida cells, or even visit family or friends on special occasions like weddings and funerals.
Faraj Hady, a suspected militant currently on trial for alleged al-Qaida links, testified last month in court that al-Raimi, perfectly disguised as a woman, once traveled with him in a car from northeast Yemen to San’a.
Since 2007, the government has announced al-Raimi’s death three times in strikes or clashes,most recently in January—each time wrong. Even on the run, he directs training camps in Yemen’s remote deserts and mountains, organizes cells and plans attacks at home and abroad, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
“Today’s battle, American leaders, is not just between you and the mujahedeen of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s between you and all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. You have united us with our people,” al-Raimi wrote in the January edition of Sada al-Malahem, or “Echo of the Epics,” the group’s online magazine. His message came after airstrikes in southern Yemen targeting al-Qaida bases that reportedly killed Yemeni civilians.
“Today, you have attacked us in our homes, so wait for the ills that will strike you in your homes,” he wrote, under his nom de guerre Abu Harira al-Sanani. “We will come for you from behind, from your left and from your right to blow up the earth beneath your feet.”
U.S. investigators believe that the explosives in the mail bomb plot disrupted last week were put together by an al-Qaida bomb-maker named Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. But Yemeni officials say al-Raimi likely oversaw the operation. Two bombs in packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues were intercepted on flights in Britain and Dubai.
Al-Raimi, who is in his late 30s or early 40s, is also thought to have masterminded last year’s failed attempt by a suicide bomber to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf, the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism agency.
Al-Raimi’s senior status was clear even during his 2002-2006 stint in a San’a prison, where he was jailed alongside other al-Qaida militants. “He represented the inmates in negotiations with the prison officials over privileges and conditions,” said one official. “He was a threatening figure who scared prison guards. The main ward where al-Qaida leaders stayed was off limits to the guards.”
In 2006, al-Raimi and 22 other al-Qaida inmates made a spectacular escape from the prison. The next July, a suicide bomber attacked tourists at a historic site in Marib province, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis, in an attack the government said al-Raimi planned.
Many of the 23 have since been either killed or returned to prison, but those still at large constitute al-Qaida in Yemen’s core leadership—including its official leader, Nasser al-Wahishi.
In 2009, al-Wahishi announced the creation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, combining Yemeni militants with those from the terror group’s Saudi branch. Al-Wahishi earned the leadership post likely because he was once a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and al-Raimi was named military chief.
Born in a village in the scenic mountainous region of Raima some 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of San’a, al-Raimi, the son of an army enlisted man, is thought to have dropped out of school and left home as a teenager to work in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida. He spent a year there, then is believed to have gone to the northern city of Saada, home to Yemen’s leading school of militant Salafi ideology, to which al-Qaida members subscribe.
Over the next 10 years, he disappeared. He spent part of the 1990s in Afghanistan, where he received military training from al-Qaida militants, according to Yemeni officials. He passed through Saudi Arabia, joining al-Qaida’s branch there and earning himself a spot on the kingdom’s most wanted list of terrorists.
He surfaced in Yemen in 2002, when he was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly planning a suicide bombing that year against a French supertanker off the country’s Arabian Sea coast.
His most recent appearance came in a videotape posted on militant websites last month. In it, a man said to be al-Raimi—bearded, turbaned and wearing a long beige tunic over baggy trousers—speaks amid footage of men with automatic rifles using U.S., British and Israeli flags for target practice.
In the tape, al-Raimi announces the creation of the “Aden and Abyan Army” to overthrow President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s U.S.-backed regime. Accusing Saleh of killing Muslim women and children on U.S. behalf, he warned, “By doing so, stupid, you are digging your own grave.”
He also added a chilling call: He urged fellow Muslims with experience in chemistry, electronics, electricity and physics to join al-Qaida.