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AQAP’s New Leadership: More Autonomy, More Attacks on the Houthis?
Apr 18, 2024
26

AQAP’s New Leadership: More Autonomy, More Attacks on the Houthis?

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In February 2020, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced that Khalid Batarfi had assumed leadership of the group, after its emir Qassim al-Rimi was killed in an American drone strike. Batarfi, known by his nom de guerre Abu al-Miqdad al-Kindi, made clear he would continue his predecessor’s campaign against suspected spies he suspected of infiltrating the group. He also upheld the policy—backed by Saif al-Adel, Al-Qaeda’s de facto global leader—of refraining from targeting Iranian interests, instead allowing Tehran to extend its influence into new areas so AQAP could benefit from the repercussions.

This strategy ultimately offered Batarfi a way to eliminate those within AQAP who opposed Saif al-Adel’s policy. This was manifested in a number of summary executions, whose victims included prominent leader Atheer al-Nahdi, as well as Said Shakra, Fayyad al-Hadhrami and Abu Maryam al-Azdi. However, the purge provoked an internal backlash against Batarfi, and several senior figures rebelled against him—including Sanad al-Wuhayshi, whose brother Nasser had been the head of the organization and the architect of its expansion in Yemen between 2014 and 2015.

Batarfi’s appointment as Emir had been approved both by top Al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen and by Saif al-Adel. He was also seen as a consensual figure able to unify the fractious organization. He drew credibility from his CV, as an Al-Qaeda veteran who had having traveled to Afghanistan in 1999, been close to the group’s founder Osama bin Laden and trained at the Al-Farouq camp alongside a number of famous jihadists such as Abu Khaled Al-Suri, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, and Abu Musab Al-Suri. He later fought alongside the Taliban against the American occupation, before being arrested in 2004, extradited to Yemen and then freed in a 2015 prison break.

Yet despite his record, those close to him proved able to influence his policies as leader and bend them to the will of Saif al-Adel.

The March 2024 killings of Batarfi and Saif al-Adel’s son Khaled Zidan, then Saad Al-Awlaqi’s subsequent appointment as AQAP chief, appear to presage a loosening of Saif al-Adel’s grip on the organization in Yemen. This is likely to have various impacts on the organization’s internal situation and its future, even perhaps affecting its relationship with the central leadership of Al-Qaeda.

Batarfi appears not to have been overly independent in terms of setting the group’s policies. Rather, he was surrounded by pro-Saif al-Adel figures such as Ibrahim al-Banna (Abu Saleh)—an Egyptian who oversaw the group’s security apparatus—and Ammar al-Sanaani. Moreover, the group’s military operations in Yemen mostly involved targeting individuals or attacking isolated Saudi-led coalition, Houthi or Islamic State group positions, without seeking a wider confrontation. This contrasted with the strategy of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, under whose leadership AQAP had expanded in the country’s south and southeast, particularly after seizing the city of Mukalla in April 2015, and who had supervised jihadist operations abroad, such as the high-profile attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

Al-Awlaqi therefore faces a string of challenges. First and foremost, he needs to restore harmony and a balance of forces within the organization, by winning back factions that had defected from it—especially in the Shabwa region—and by demonstrating his independence from Batarfi-era factions that had dominated the group and kept a tight grip on its purse strings. He will likely also seek to rein in Egyptian leader Ibrahim al-Banna’s security apparatus, one of the most important pillars of Saif al-Adel’s campaign against the cells that rejected his strategy of appeasement with Iran.

It is possible that Al-Awlaqi will manage to restore order to AQAP, but this will require him to invest in his kinship with notorious leader Anwar Al-Awlaqi—who was assassinated by an American drone in September 2011—to win back breakaway factions. He will also seek to exploit his status as a member of the Awlaqi tribe to win the backing of it and other tribes in his home governorate of Shabwa to bolster AQAP’s presence there.

The group’s new Emir is also likely to exploit the symbolic status of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen to prevent it breaking away entirely from the parent organization, by carving out more autonomy vis-à-vis Al-Qaeda’s global leadership and the latter’s less confrontational line towards Iran and its proxies. Al-Qaeda’s global leadership may therefore be forced to accept limited AQAP attacks on the Houthis, providing these do not translate into direct attacks on Iran.

Accordingly, the Houthis—and southern Yemeni forces—may attack AQAP’s new leadership, given the latter’s likely desire to break previously agreed truces, especially if Al-Aqlawi believes his organization can win back tribal support in Shabwa and if factions that walked out over Batarfi’s policies rejoin the organization and boost its local military capacity.

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