May 20, 2024

Armed group says Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki takes over as new leader after Batarfi’s death, according to SITE Intelligence Group.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has announced the death of its leader Khalid Batarfi and appointed a successor, according to an intelligence service monitoring armed group networks worldwide.

SITE Intelligence Group reported late on Sunday that a statement by AQAP did not give a cause for Batarfi’s death. It said Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki would take over as new leader.

“God took his soul while he patiently sought his reward and stood firm, immigrated, garrisoned and waged jihad,” SITE quoted an AQAP veteran as saying of Batarfi in a nearly 15-minute video.

The clip showed Batarfi wrapped in a white funeral shroud and the black-and-white flag of al-Qaeda.

Born in Saudi Arabia and believed to have been in his 40s, Batarfi was named AQAP’s leader in early 2020 after his predecessor, Qassim al-Rimi, was killed by a United States drone strike in what then-President Donald Trump said was a counterterrorism operation in Yemen.

Batarfi was one of 150 jailed AQAP members who were freed when the group captured the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in 2015, where he was being held.

SITE said the new leader, al-Awlaki, last appeared in a video released in February 2023, in which he urged Sunni tribesmen in the Yemeni provinces of Abyan and Shabwa to “resist overtures by the United Arab Emirates and the [separatist] Southern Transitional Council to join their fight against AQAP”.

The US has a $6m reward on al-Awlaki, saying he “has publicly called for attacks against the United States and its allies”.

Yemen’s war broke out in late 2014 when Houthi rebels, allied with forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. The war escalated in March 2015 when a Saudi-UAE-led coalition intervened against the rebels in a bid to restore the internationally-recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Yemen-based AQAP, as well as other armed groups and fighters, have taken advantage of the chaos of the war between the pro-government forces and the Houthis to expand their footprint.

While analysts say the group has weakened in recent years, AQAP has long been considered by the US as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda still operating after the killing of founder Osama bin Laden.

“Although in decline, AQAP remains the most effective terrorist group in Yemen with intent to conduct operations in the region and beyond,” a recent United Nations report on al-Qaeda said.

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