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 Qaeda's most active franchise — the Yemen-based Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda's military dynamo," said Nabil al-Bakeery, a Yemeni expert on al Qaeda. "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 Qaeda cells, and even visit family or friends on special occasions like weddings and funerals.
Faraj Hady, a suspected militant currently on trial for alleged al Qaeda 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 the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
U.S. investigators believe that the explosives in the mail-bomb plot disrupted last week were put together by an al Qaeda 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, also is 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 2002-06 stint in a San'a prison, where he was jailed alongside other al Qaeda 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 Qaeda leaders stayed was off limits to the guards."
In 2006, al-Raimi and 22 other al Qaeda 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 Qaeda in Yemen's core leadership — including its official leader, Nasser al-Wahishi.