AQAP leader discusses complex war in Yemen

Al Malahem Media, the main propaganda arm for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), published a “dialogue” with Qasim al Raymi on Apr. 30. Raymi was named AQAP’s overall emir after a drone strike killed his predecessor, Nasir al Wuhayshi, in June 2015. For nearly two years since that time, Raymi has been forced to navigate an increasingly complex battlefield in Yemen. And Al Malahem’s newly released interview* is intended to explained Raymi’s thinking on everything from AQAP’s conflict with the Houthis, to the Arab-led coalition that is fighting the Houthis, to al Qaeda’s approach to implementing sharia law.

Raymi says his organization follows the example set by the Taliban. He also cites a text written by al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri to explain why AQAP cooperates with other Islamist and tribal groups inside Yemen. Raymi is openly loyal to Zawahiri, so it is not surprising that he would follow the al Qaeda emir’s guidance.

Criticizes American counterterrorism raid

The interview begins with a critique of the American counterterrorism operation launched on Jan. 29 in the Yakla area of Yemen’s Al Bayda province. Women and children were killed during the raid and Raymi doesn’t miss the opportunity to portray the US as an aggressor against all Muslims.

“From their crimes, we confirm that they are enemies of Muslims,” Raymi says. He argues that this “crime” is just one of many supposedly committed by the Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria. Raymi also attempts to tie the raid in Yemen to America’s pro-Israel policy, citing the “unlimited” and “constant support in finance” and “weapons” the US provides to the Israeli nation.

Raymi also argues that the Yakla operation demonstrates America’s weakness, because the US is still hunting the “mujahideen” more than 15 years after the 9/11 hijackings. “A decade and a half [after] the outbreak of the contemporary Crusader war and they have not achieved a thing,” he claims. “Their ploy has now drifted into killing women and children.” President Trump’s policies are “a clear sign” of America’s “accumulated failure,” Raymi says, after consecutive administrations have “failed and continue to fail in confronting the Mujahideen.”

“A small number of loyal mujahideen from the tribes of (Radaa) and a group of Muhajireen managed to kill and injure a large number of the American soldiers,” while bringing “down two helicopters” and sending the Americans away “in shame and disgrace,” Raymi says.

In reality, the AQAP chief exaggerates America’s losses, as US Central Command (CENTCOM) has confirmed that one Navy Seal was killed and three other service members injured — not a “large number,” as Raymi claims. Still, there is little doubt that the mission did not go well, as multiple civilians were killed.

The Trump administration has argued that the operation was worth the cost, because valuable intelligence on AQAP’s network was recovered. Raymi disputes this, saying “these are just mere attempts to cover their failure.”

Al Malahem’s interviewer asks Raymi about other American raids in Yemen. The AQAP leader says that based on their “experiences” and “communication with our brothers in the fronts of Afghanistan and Somalia,” al Qaeda has concluded that a raid is a failure “if known beforehand.”

“A raid is all about a sudden attack and does not rely on confrontation,” Raymi argues. “So if a raid is known, all immediately retreat.” He claims that other missions have failed because tribesmen and the jihadists’ had foreknowledge of the Americans’ approach.

Raymi then advises his “brothers” on how to deal with night raids by providing some basic observations, but explains there “are some issues that we cannot express here.” He says the jihadists should: have no less than two guards stationed during the night shift, prepare for such a scenario beforehand and have a plan “to encounter them,” remain in their posts during combat, plant “bombs and mines in a circular” pattern around the place they are guarding, and let the enemy “advance until he reaches the place of ambush and sphere of combat.”

Al Malahem’s man trumpets a fatwa issued by approximately 150 Yemeni scholars “some years ago” saying it is necessary to fight “the Americans if they were to come down to Yemen.” Raymi elaborates, saying: “There is no Muslim who sees America violating sanctity, killing children and women and yet hesitates in fighting them. If an American comes at your doorstep, that is by all means a test [of] your faith and loyalty. Therefore, this is a golden chance to avenge your fellow Muslims by this American soldier who practices crime against the Muslim nation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and among other Islamic countries.”

Raymi claims the Houthis are allied with America

Even though the Houthis have fired on American ships off the coast of Yemen, Raymi argues they are in cahoots with the US. “The issue is…vivid and clear,” he says, as the Houthis “conduct continuous meetings with” the Americans. Raymi reminds his audience that former Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who is closely allied with the Houthis, first partnered with the Americans years go. “So the issue is not at all strange,” Raymi contends.

However, while al Qaeda likes to portray the US and Iranian-backed Shiite forces as partners in Yemen, this is not really the case. The Trump administration has even considering using greater force against the Houthi rebels in ordered to limit Iranian influence in the region.

Al Malahem’s interviewer says that the US has accused “some scholars,” tribal leaders and other “important” personalities in Yemen of “supporting” al Qaeda. This may be a reference to the US government’s terrorist designations, which have targeted AQAP’s ideological and financial support network inside the country.

“A majority of those listed have nothing to do with Al Qaeda,” Raymi alleges. But he confuses his own argument by explaining that America uses these lists to “weaken the power” of Sunnis inside Yemen. Specifically, he links these lists (presumably the counterterrorism designations) to AQAP’s expanding base of support, which contradicts his claim that the designated individuals have “nothing to do with” his organization.

The Americans know “people are joining the caravan of jihad” and that the participation of Ansar al Sharia’s “mujahideen…in the fronts against the Houthis [during] the last two years” has made it “appealing” to join the jihadists’ cause. (Ansar al Sharia is AQAP’s front group in Yemen.) The Americans are trying to “scare away people from joining the mujahideen,” Raymi claims, but he argues that this effort will fail.

“The Mujahideen are from Ansar al Sharia,” which is an “inseparable part of the Muslim nation” and “none can separate them.”

The UAE campaign is supposedly part of an “American project”

In 2016, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia launched a ground campaign in Yemen. AQAP’s forces melted away from the areas under the group’s control, including the port city of Mukallah, as the Arab coalition approached. The two sides have skirmished since then, but the Arab forces have been mainly focused on the Houthis.

Raymi portrays this Emirati and Saudi-led force as an American proxy, and even accuses the UAE of cooperating with the US in the controversial counterterrorism operation on Jan. 29.

“They cooperate and contribute with the Americans constantly,” Raymi claims. The UAE “wants to entirely implement the American project in Yemen,” such that key ports come under their control and the southern part of the country is transformed into “an American protectorate.”

Raymi points out that Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited the UAE during his first trip to the Middle East as the Pentagon’s new chief. This shows the UAE is “striving to be the ultimate soldier in the region” for its “master America,” Raymi alleges. AQAP’s top man claims that the UAE views Yemen as “easy booty,” and is trying to secure the ports and “crude oil” as part of its economic plan.

The Arab-led coalition’s entrance into the Yemeni war in 2016 confused the battlefield even further. And Raymi tries to explain his group’s approach to fighting multiple adversaries, some of whom are also fighting one another.

“No one denies” that the Houthis and former President Saleh “are aggressors that need to be eliminated and killed,” Raymi says. But AQAP fought alongside the tribes and the “sons of Yemen” against the Houthis well before Arab forces stepped foot on Yemeni soil.

But in “other parts” of Yemen, Raymi elaborates, AQAP has been forced to fight the Emirati coalition, as they struck AQAP with “heavy” operations and allegedly “practiced their crimes in Yemen.” Raymi claims that “thousands” of “prisoners” have been “jailed without any evidence” in Lahj province and “hundreds” more in Hadramout province. AQAP’s policy has been to oppose these “crimes” and counter the Emirati offensive when necessary.

AQAP would prefer to focus on the Houthis

Perhaps the most interesting section of Raymi’s interview is his discussion of AQAP’s priorities inside Yemen. Asked if Ansar al Sharia “should concentrate” its efforts on “fighting the Houthis instead of indulging in other battles,” Raymi replies: “Yes we are going to great lengths and all [of] our efforts are towards that.”

While AQAP wants to focus on the Houthis, Raymi says his men have to make sure they do not “expose” themselves to other threats. “It is our duty to unify our efforts in fighting the Houthis by all means,” Raymi explains.

The AQAP chieftain then provides an anecdote that offers real insight into AQAP’s strategic thinking.

“A delegation of scholars came to us in the year of 2013 and told us that we are a force among the forces of” the Sunni community, Raymi says. “They insisted that we devote our entire efforts to the danger of Houthis and to not engage in battle with the Yemeni system,” meaning Hadi’s government.

Raymi elaborates: “We welcomed the idea and agreed to the truce and put forward unto them two conditions.” The first term of the proposed truce would halt “any external intrusion on Yemen, guaranteeing the independence of the country from American intervention and American planes in the atmosphere of Yemen.” (This would have meant that the Yemeni government could not assist the US in hunting down senior AQAP figures. Drone strikes would have been unilateral moves had this truce taken hold.)

The second condition of the proposed ceasefire would have led to the formation of “a panel of scholars” who would “study the constitution and the policies that govern the country, so as to guarantee the application of Islamic sharia.”

Both the scholars and AQAP’s first emir, Nasir al Wuhayshi, “signed the truce” with the stipulation that these two terms be “met.” In Raymi’s telling, President Hadi “turned down the scholars and refused to meet with them” even after he (Hadi) pleaded with “them to form a truce with the Mujahideen.” Raymi claims that the ceasefire was scuttled because the Americans learned about it. “After that, America launched an attack and heavily bombarded [Yemen] to announce to all that [Hadi] is none but an agent to them.”

Contemporaneous reports from both independent sources and AQAP indicate that the al Qaeda arm did in fact negotiate a possible truce with President Hadi’s government in 2013. “The president wants members of Qaeda to surrender their arms, announce their repentance and renounce their extremist ideas,” an unnamed official was quoted by several news outlets as saying.

Even though AQAP failed to reach an accord with Hadi, the negotiations demonstrate that al Qaeda is willing to be tactically flexible, especially in complex, multi-sided wars such as the one raging inside Yemen.

The Taliban is AQAP’s model

The Islamic State frequently accuses its rivals in al Qaeda of not truly implementing sharia law in the areas under its control. AQAP is clearly sensitive to this criticism from their fellow jihadist ideologues, because Al Malahem asks Raymi if his group engages “administration and control” during times of “conquest and liberation.”

Raymi claims that AQAP does not promise the people they “will rule others,” nor does it seek “leadership” for itself. “Our main goal is to be governed by the Islamic Sharia,” whether AQAP is the ultimate authority or “others” earn that role for themselves. “Surely this is not upon us but in the power of Allah,” Raymi says. “If He wills for the honor to accompany us, His absolute bounty will bestow upon us. And if He wills else, we are bestowed with the honor of loyalty and truth in striving to rule the sharia in this earth.”

Al Qaeda has employed similar rhetoric with respect to other jihadist battlefields, such as Syria. Ayman al Zawahiri has gone so far as to say that if a true Islamic government rises in Syria, then he will be its “first soldier.” Al Qaeda has also taken a slower, more patient approach to state-building than Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise. Al Qaeda is attempting to build broader and deeper support for its jihadist cause inside Yemen and elsewhere.

AQAP and other al Qaeda branches have developed this concept, arguing that only through proper consultation with recognized authorities can new Islamic governments be formed. Of course, the catch is that these same figures must agree with much of al Qaeda’s ideology, or otherwise they wouldn’t be consulted.

Raymi elaborates on AQAP’s thinkint. “During conquest, it is [incumbent] upon the mujahideen to not seize and occupy matters concerning people without consulting them,” he says. “The term ‘affairs (amruhum)’ is not restricted to the mujahideen alone but to all concerned,” Raymi says, drawing on jurisprudence and Islamic texts. “The reign and rule is mostly based upon the strong and faithful” and AQAP gives “priority” to the “influential” people. First and foremost “are the people of authority from among the scholars, commanders and [people] with a field of specialization.”

This bottom-up approach to waging jihad is more populist than the Islamic State’s top-down authoritarianism. But it creates a difficult balancing act for AQAP. Al Qaeda’s doctrine requires patience, yet the jihadists are fighting to enforce their harsh sharia laws in the here and now.

And AQAP has struggled at times to implement its radical governance. Raymi alludes to these difficulties, saying: “Perhaps some time later we will [explain] to our brothers some of our experiences in” the province of Hadramout. AQAP has controlled Hadramout province at times and the experience has been both “positive and the negative” for AQAP, Raymi says. “We wronged in some matters and believe to have accomplished in some,” the AQAP leader claims. “Perhaps the experience will find one who will able to counsel and improve our ways.”

In the meantime, Raymi says AQAP will continue to work with acceptable “scholars,” who are necessary to guide the jihad and prevent infighting, as well as various other problems.

Raymi says the “unique example” AQAP pursues is that of the “Taliban in Afghanistan.” The Taliban’s “steadiness and righteous path” is due to “the existence of scholars in the mujahideen ranks,” Raymi claims. “This is what keeps their jihad steady and keeps it away from any deviation and aberration. This is what contributed and aided [it] in gaining the Afghan nation and the Muslim nation in jihad.”

AQAP works with other Islamist groups and the tribes

Al Malahem’s interviewer asked Raymi about the other existing “Islamic groups,” as well as “established tribes,” and how AQAP deals with them.

“My noble brother, these people are the Muslim nation,” Raymi says. “We treat and deal with them according to Islam and…sharia. And any Muslim whatsoever is our brother. We face today a Crusader war that does not [distinguish] on its way.”

Raymi continues: “Defensive jihad does not stipulate any condition. We are ready to aid and protect any Muslim and fight together with all Muslims as one.”

Raymi then mentions that Ayman al Zawahiri “has published a document which visualizes this particular matter.” Al Malahem’s transcripts says the title of the document is “Wathiqa Nusratu al-Islam.” Under this doctrine, al Qaeda positions itself as a supporter of all Muslims and Islam. It is concept that has been employed elsewhere, such as in West Africa, where the newly formed al Qaeda group is named “Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin” (or the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”).

Raymi explains what this means in practice: “And by the grace of Allah, we fight [alongside] all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups. We fought with the Salafs without exception. We fought with the Muslim Brotherhood and also our brothers from the sons of tribes. We fought together with the public in Aden and elsewhere. We participate with the Muslims in every battle.”

The AQAP chief says “Muslims differ from one another in the matters of sharia, and certain juristic choices but these contradictions are viewed under the lens of sharia.” But he contends that “[f]airness and equality among every Muslim” requires them to give “aid” and “advice to each other.” Muslims are required to help each other achieve “victory,” while aiding “one another.”

“And when the enemy confronts, all Muslims unite to repel the oppressor and fight him,” Raymi argues. This means that “Salafi scholars fought [alongside] the people who differ [from] them in the matters of names and attributes of Allah,” because “jihad is with all,” whether they are “pious” or “immoral.”

And with that unifying doctrine, Qasim al Raymi and al Qaeda hope that they can build enough support for their cause that they can outlast their multiple enemies in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

*Al Malahem released a transcript of Raymi’s remarks in both Arabic and rough English.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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