CAIRO — The leader of al-Qaida' branch in Yemen said that his militants have often fought alongside Yemeni government factions — remarks that could embarrass the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the impoverished Arab country's Shiite rebels.
Qasim al-Rimi leads the group known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by Washington to be the most dangerous offshoot of the global terror network. He succeeded Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike nearly two years ago.
On the U.S. most-wanted list with a $5 million reward for his capture, al-Rimi has been a top target of U.S. airstrikes, which have soared in the past four months in southern Yemen. He spoke on Sunday to AQAP's media arm al-Malahem from an undisclosed location in Yemen.
"We fight along all Muslims in Yemen, together with different Islamic groups," he said, adding that his followers have teamed up with an array of factions — including the ultraconservative Salafis, "the Muslim Brotherhood and also our brothers among the sons of (Sunni) tribes" — against Yemen's Shiite rebels known as Houthis.
Al-Rimi did not elaborate on what exactly fighting "alongside" meant but al-Qaida has emerged as a de facto ally of the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his backers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against the Houthis in a grueling civil war that has wreaked devastation, caused widespread hunger and killed more than 10,000 since late 2014.
Over the past decade, the terror group has built up ties of one degree or another with the country's many tribes — and has often used anger over civilians killed in American airstrikes to gain recruits.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis are some of the key militias on Hadi's side, and regularly receive funds and weapons from the U.S.-backed Saudi led coalition.
The Yemen war pits fighters loyal to Hadi, who was forced into Saudi exile after Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. A coalition of mostly Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia stepped in to wage an extensive air campaign in March 2015 and deployed ground forces against the rebels.
Multiple rounds of U.N-brokered peace talks have failed to bridge the gap between Yemen's warring sides, and the conflict allowed al-Qaida and its rival Islamic State affiliate to exploit the chaos and increase their footprint, especially in southern Yemen where Hadi's forces have failed to restore law and order.
Al-Qaida seized the city of Mukalla, the capital of Yemen's largest province of Hadramawt in 2015, but was forced to withdraw last year.
Maggie Michael, The Associated Press