Jihadists on social media claim Jalal Bala’idi, also known as Hamza al Zinjibari, was killed in a US drone strike last night.
A senior al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader may have been killed in a US drone strike that was launched in southern Yemen last night. Several fighters were reportedly killed and jihadists on social media claim that one of them was Jalal Bala’idi, a prominent AQAP field commander. Bala’idi’s purported death has not been confirmed by either AQAP or the US.
In 2014, the US State Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Bala’idi’s whereabouts. Foggy Bottom’s Rewards for Justice listing for Bala’idi notes that he has served as a “regional” emir for AQAP since 2012 and was “responsible for multiple governorates.” In 2013, Bala’idi “was involved in planning attacks on Western diplomatic officials and facilities in Sanaa using explosives.” State explained that “AQAP had surveilled diplomatic personnel in preparation for the attacks.”
According to Reuters, Bala’idi “was killed by a drone strike as he was traveling in a car with two others in [the] coastal Abyan province.”
AQAP controls populated areas in Abyan, including Zinjibar, which is the provincial capital, and the nearby town of Jaar.
In December, AQAP released a propaganda video celebrating its “liberation” of Jaar, which the jihadists have renamed “Waqar.” Residents featured in the video praised AQAP’s victory, saying the al Qaeda branch has brought stable governance to the area. AQAP controls territory in Yemen, including Jaar, under the name Ansar al Sharia, which is merely a political and paramilitary front for the group.
Most of the AQAP fighters shown in the video had their faces obscured in front of the camera. However, Bala’idi’s face could be seen as he greeted and congratulated his fighters on their success. A screen shot of Bala’idi from the video can be seen above.
Citing “media reports and some analysts,” Reuters reports that Bala’idi “may have recently defected from” AQAP “to become the chief of Islamic State’s Yemen branch.” But The Long War Journal has not seen any real evidence indicating that this is true. The Islamic State’s Yemen “province” has suffered from a leadership crisis and the group did not advertise Bala’idi’s supposed defection, as it most certainly would have given his high-profile status within AQAP. In addition, the AQAP video from Jaar in late December shows that he was leading al Qaeda’s forces during its most recent offensives.
Bala’idi has been prominently featured in AQAP’s propaganda. In August 2015, for instance, AQAP’s Al Malahem Media Foundation released a lengthy interview with Bala’idi, who discussed the jihadists’ war against the Shiite Houthi rebels and other related matters. His interview was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Bala’idi explained that AQAP has been “training the Sunni youth in” its camps, and has been “able to train thousands of Sunnis” thus far. “We do not exaggerate when we say thousands of Sunnis, because this matter is clear and everyone knows it,” Bala’idi said, according to SITE’s translation.
“Praise be to Allah, these trainings and these camps have bore fruit, and also the arming of the sons of the Sunnis, for they were able to affect the reality of the fronts, and were able to change the progress in the battlefields, by the grace of Allah,” Bala’idi claimed. He was most likely referring to the AQAP offensive that began in early 2015. The al Qaeda branch has seized several cities and towns since then.
Bala’idi’s responsibilities on behalf of AQAP have been far-reaching. He has served as a “field commander” in the Yemeni provinces of Abyan, Bayda, Hadramout, Lahj, and Shabwa, according to The Yemen Times. He is also said to be the head of Ansar al Sharia in Abyan province.
If his death is confirmed, then Bala’idi is the first senior AQAP leader killed by the US in a drone strike in Yemen this year. The US killed several AQAP leaders in airstrikes last year, including Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s co-founder and emir. Wuhayshi also served as al Qaeda’s general manager and was a protégé of Osama bin Laden.
While a number of top AQAP leaders have been killed in US airstrikes, their deaths have not prevented the organization from taking advantage of the turmoil in Yemen. In addition to Zinjibar and Jaar, AQAP controls Mukallah, which is the capital of the Hadramout province, as well as the town of Azzan. AQAP also likely controls other territory and operates throughout the country.