Analysis: AQAP’s new emir reaffirms allegiance to Zawahiri, praises Taliban

On Mar. 19, al-Qaeda websites and social media channels distributed a new audio message from Khalid Batarfi, the new emir of AQAP.

Last week, al-Qaeda websites and social media channels shared an audio message from Khalid Batarfi, a U.S.-designated terrorist who was recently named the new emir of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Batarfi, a longtime al-Qaeda veteran, has a well-established media profile in jihadist circles, as he has regularly commented on current affairs since his escape from a Yemeni prison in 2015. But Batarfi’s latest message is one of his most important yet, because he has inherited the helm of one of al-Qaeda’s most important branches, albeit one that has suffered a string of setbacks.

Batarfi begins his address by reaffirming his and AQAP’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom he refers to as “our most excellent sheikh and emir.” He reiterates a version of the bayat (oath of allegiance) that is popular among the jihadists.

“I pledge allegiance to you, to listen and obey, during [times of] hardship and ease,” Batarfi says to Zawahiri. The newly named AQAP head says that he and his men will “endure” whatever problems come their way “as a price for this allegiance” and will not dispute Zawahiri’s orders. Batarfi explains that his bayat to Zawahiri is for the sake of waging jihad and for “establishing Allah’s sharia [Islamic law]” in this world. Moreover, his fealty covers “all of the brothers” in AQAP and they will remain “firm” in their pledge, staying on al-Qaeda’s path until “victory is granted by Allah” or they “achieve martyrdom” in service of Allah’s cause. (The title of his address is dedicated to this same motif, martyrdom or victory.)

Batarfi is the third emir of AQAP since it was reborn in early 2009. The first emir, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp in pre-9/11 Afghanistan and eventually rose to become a senior leader in al-Qaeda’s global network. After Wuhayshi was killed in a June 2015 U.S. drone strike, his comrade Qasim al-Raymi (al-Rimi) was named as his successor. The U.S. finally caught up with Raymi in January of this year. When Raymi took over for Wuhayshi in mid-2015, he quickly renewed his own allegiance to Zawahiri on behalf of AQAP. In his new audio address, Batarfi repeated this same ritual.

Eulogizes Qasim al-Raymi

Indeed, Batarfi eulogizes Qasim al-Raymi at length, passing along his condolences to Zawahiri for the “martyrdom of our sheikh.”

AQAP’s senior leadership ranks have suffered as a result of a sustained espionage campaign. The U.S., Saudis and their allies have repeatedly targeted AQAP’s top figures since 2015. Batarfi claims that his predecessor, al-Raymi, had a “long history of revealing” such plots, as he and others ferreted out spy cells. According to Batarfi, Wuhayshi himself nominated al-Raymi as his successor in his own will, describing al-Raymi as his “beloved friend.” Wuhayshi said that he and al-Raymi shared many “sleepless nights” as the pair worked “to support sharia.” Al-Raymi was a resolute man who did not indulge in “worldly pleasures” and therefore AQAP’s rank-and-file should “listen to him and obey” him, Wuhayshi explained in his will.  

Batarfi projects defiance in the aftermath of al-Raymi’s death, swearing that the jihadists will avenge his death, making America and its allies “miserable.” Batarfi claims that the “martyrdom of leaders” testifies to the “truthfulness of their methodology” and is “a badge of honor” they all hope to achieve. The new AQAP honcho vows to fight on, employing various strategies to harass the jihadists’ enemies.

Lauds the Taliban’s success fighting America

Batarfi warns the ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) against pursuing democracy, arguing that Muslims are still suffering from the policies pursued by some along these lines. He blasts those Muslims who think democratic politics are an appropriate “method,” claiming that such thinking is the work of Satan and a “far cry from the methodology” set forth in the “Holy Book” (Quran) and the “pure sunna.”

By way of contrast, the new AQAP leader points to the success of the Taliban.

Batarfi says the ummah should only call for a “return to the book of Allah and the sunna of His messenger” and continue to wage jihad, while practicing supposedly good morals and “uniting around” proper “scholars” and the mujahideen. The implication is that this is what the Taliban has done. Batarfi claims America and its coalition partners have been forced to submit to the “Afghans and the freemen of the Taliban,” as the mujahideen’s attacks have forced the U.S. into “suing for peace.” America is “hoping to leave Afghanistan under any condition” after suffering years of losses.

Batarfi sees America’s loss in Afghanistan as the fulfillment of a Divine vow, claiming this is what both Allah and His messenger “promised.” Allah has promised land and power to those who stay true to this path, Batarfi claims. And the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic Maghreb, Levant, Palestine, Somalia and everywhere else “have been patient,” awaiting their victories. Batarfi claims that a widespread belief in jihadism and martyrdom have arisen all across the ummah, as Muslims wage jihad against the “occupying invaders” and “tyrants” oppressing the masses. Allah has demonstrated in Afghanistan that he will break his enemies all across the globe, Batarfi says.

Thus, AQAP is using America’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban as evidence to show that the jihadists can eventually achieve victory. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that the Taliban agreed to betray al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as part of the accord. The text of the agreement does not say that. Thus far, there is no evidence suggesting the Taliban has turned against al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, like other members of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, Batarfi sees the deal as a boon for the jihadists’ cause.

Khalid Batarfi was featured in the Taliban’s Dec. 2016 video celebrating the group’s bond with al-Qaeda.

It should be recalled that the Taliban itself has marketed Batarfi as a righteous ideologue. In Dec. 2016, the Taliban produced a video celebrating its bond with al-Qaeda. An extensive clip of Batarfi was featured in the production. Batarfi praised the Taliban for sacrificing its Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan while defending Osama bin Laden and his comrades. He claimed that the Taliban could finally “see [the] light of victory,” as governance according to the “rule of Sharia” is “even stronger in Afghanistan than before.” That is, he predicted that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate would rise once again.

Praises Shabaab’s role in the “Jerusalem Will Not Be Judaized” campaign

Batarfi also praises Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, for conducting a “series” of “operations against the sponsor of infidelity in the region,” America. He points to the attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya earlier this year and other operations as “proof” that the ummah is acting “like one body” in the war against America and its allies.

Both Shabaab and al-Qaeda’s West African branch, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM), have participated in the “Jerusalem Will Not Be Judaized” campaign, which was ordered by Zawahiri. Shabaab has stressed that the raid on the Manda Bay Airfield was conducted under the “direction” of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.

In his new message, Batarfi says that such raids show the jihadists are part of “one ummah” (another theme employed by Zawahiri), as they supposedly act in concert everywhere across the globe.

Al-Qaeda’s global war

Batarfi ends his talk by asking Allah to accept al-Raymi and two other fallen figures as “martyrs.” He claims that their deaths mark the beginning of a “new era” in which Islam will rise in power once again, with new “victories” on the horizon. Batarfi vows that his deceased comrades will be avenged, but he warns the mujahideen to avoid spilling Muslim blood. Batarfi also says the jihadists will not forget their captives, whether they be male or female.

In closing, Batarfi lists al-Qaeda’s enemies as America, Israel, Russia and Iran, as well as all those who help these nations.  

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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