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Security Brief

Leader of al Qaeda in Yemen Believed Dead in U.S. Airstrike

Officials are reportedly waiting for confirmation before making an announcement.

Yemeni fighters targeting al Qaeda militants.
Yemeni fighters loyal to the government backed by the Saudi-led coalition closing in on a suspected location of an Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader in Yemen on Feb. 21, 2018. Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of the al Qaeda branch in Yemen, is believed to have been killed in a CIA airstrike, Pompeo condemns the Chinese crackdown on Uighur Muslims during a visit to Kazakhstan, and Turkey carries out an airstrike against Syrian forces

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U.S. Strikes at Terrorist Leader 

U.S. officials believe the leader of the al Qaeda branch in Yemen was killed in a CIA airstrike, a former administration official tells Foreign Policy, confirming a New York Times report out Friday. U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to confirm the reports on Friday with a series of retweets.

Significant blow. If confirmed, the death of Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who has a long history of terrorist activities dating back to the 1990s, would represent a significant blow to the group, which on Sunday claimed responsibility for the last year’s deadly shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola by a Saudi National. Raymi was sentenced to five years in prison in 2005 for plotting to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, but he escaped in 2006. He has been linked to numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and the 2009 “underwear bomber.” He rose to become emir of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate in 2015. 

The State Department had offered a $10 million reward for information on his whereabouts.

U.S. officials had been tracking Raymi since November 2019, when they first learned of his location from an informer in Yemen, according to the Times. Officials expressed confidence that he was killed in the January airstrike but were awaiting confirmation before making a public announcement. 

Not the first attempt. This is not the first time the United States has targeted Raymi. In the first major military operation authorized by U.S. President Donald Trump, Navy SEAL Team 6 attempted to kill or capture the terrorist leader in 2017. The operation failed, leaving Chief Petty Officer William Owens dead.

The Pentagon on Friday said officials were aware of reports alleging Raymi’s death but declined to provide further comment. The National Security Council did not respond to an inquiry from Foreign Policy


What We’re Watching 

State of the Union. Trump is slated to give his third annual State of the Union address on Tuesday before a deeply divided Congress that voted to impeach him—and also looks ready to acquit him on partisan lines the next day. But rather than take a massive victory lap on impeachment, White House aides tell reporters they expect Trump to focus his speech on policy substance, including foreign-policy priorities such as the strength of the U.S. military and the recently clinched U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. 

Resumption of hostilities against the Islamic State. Iraqi military officials said in a statement on Jan. 30 that joint military operations with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State have resumed. The operations were put on pause nearly three weeks ago after the U.S. assassination of the Quds Force leader Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani and the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis dramatically raised tensions with Iran, causing both the United States and Iraq to focus on the possible threat from Iran—and causing Iraq to seek to reduce the U.S. troop presence in the country. 

Pompeo supports Uighurs amid China crackdown. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Kazakhstan to condemn China over its crackdown on Uighur Muslims during a visit to the Central Asian country on Sunday. China has forced between 1 million and 2 million people into so-called reeducation camps in western China in recent years—some of whom are ethnically Kazakh—under the guise of a counterterrorism campaign.

U.S. expands troop presence at Saudi base. Since last summer, the U.S. troop presence at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia has swelled to roughly 2,500, a sign of the United States’ commitment to Saudi security as tensions with Iran remain high. Although Trump has favored a drawdown of U.S. troops in the Middle East, Air Force Col. Jason King told reporters that the white tents that house U.S. troops at the base could be replaced with trailers and other structures that showcase the permanence of the U.S. presence in the country. Many in Washington, particularly lawmakers, have been more critical of Saudi Arabia since the 2018 killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but there is little sign that the Trump administration will reduce its presence in the country.

Turkey launches airstrikes. Turkey launched several deadly airstrikes against Syrian government forces in northwestern Syria today in response to an artillery attack that left six Turkish soldiers dead. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the airstrikes killed 35 Syrian troops, a major escalation of the fighting in that part of the country. The airstrikes were also prompted, in part, by renewed Russian and Syrian operations against a major highway in the province, causing hundreds of thousands of new refugees to flee north toward Turkey. 


Movers and Shakers

DoD AI chief to retire. Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who served as the head of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, is set to retire, Defense News reports. The JAIC, as it is known, was established in late 2018 in an attempt by officials to consolidate several hundred AI projects under a single coordinating structure. 

Impeachment witness leaves White House. Jennifer Williams, a national security aide to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, will be leaving her post in the vice president’s office to take up a post at U.S. Central Command, Politico reports. Williams was one of the White House officials who listened to the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump’s impeachment, and she served as a key witness during the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation.

Another impeachment witness retires. Marie Yovanovitch, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is retiring from the State Department, NPR reports. Yovanovitch became another key witness in the impeachment trial after being ousted in a smear campaign by Trump’s associates. Pompeo faced criticism from former diplomats for not offering her any public support throughout the impeachment process

New South Sudan envoy. The State Department appointed a new envoy for South Sudan, the veteran diplomat W. Stuart Symington. It comes as Washington grows increasingly frustrated with the African country’s warring factions and stalled efforts to form a unity government.


Odds and Ends

Lunch order gone wrong. Top Israeli military intelligence officials have been reprimanded after dispatching a spy to the West Bank to procure Palestinian tahini, the delicious sesame paste that is a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. One lieutenant colonel will be dismissed from the army over the incident, according to an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman. Haaretz has the story.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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