Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to note that FDD’s Long War Journal has not independently confirmed that Batarfi was captured. This report will be updated when more information becomes available one way or another, including if AQAP denies or confirms the news.
Update: On Feb. 10, Batarfi appeared in a new video, discussing recent events. His appearance proves that he was not detained in Oct. 2020, as he discusses the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.
Khalid Batarfi, a veteran jihadist who led Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was reportedly captured late last year, according to a newly published report by a panel of experts working for the United Nations Security Council. The capture of Batarfi would be yet another blow to the al Qaeda branch, which has “suffered” a string of “setbacks.”
FDD’s Long War Journal has not confirmed Batarfi’s capture.
The UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team says that Batarfi (a.k.a. Abu Miqdad al-Kindi), was “arrested during an operation in Ghayda City, Al-Mahrah Governorate, in October” of 2020.
CNN’s Paul Cruickshank first reported on Batarfi’s purported capture, noting that it’s possible the AQAP man was turned over to Saudi Arabia after being detained by Yemeni forces.
Batarfi was appointed the emir of AQAP after his predecessor, Qasim al-Raymi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier in 2020. Raymi had succeeded Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden’s former aide-de-camp, who led the reconstituted AQAP from its inception in 2009 until his death in 2015. All three men — Wuhayshi, Raymi, and Batarfi — were veterans of al Qaeda’s training camps in pre-9/11 Afghanistan and had established their credentials as respected figures within al Qaeda’s global network. All three men were previously detained at one point or another inside Yemen, only to escape or be freed to fight another day. Batarfi himself was freed from a prison in Mukallah in 2015, after AQAP overran the port city.
It is not clear who is serving as AQAP’s emir in Batarfi’s absence, if he was captured, as the group hasn’t confirmed or denied his detention. AQAP has been releasing dated material recorded by Batarfi, but hadn’t produced new commentary from him in some time.
Earlier this year, Hurras al-Din (an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria) included footage of Batarfi in one of its productions. In that clip, Batarfi incited “individual jihadists” to take up arms on behalf of their brethren. The Taliban also featured Batarfi in a 2016 video celebrating its alliance with al Qaeda.
AQAP has other significant problems on its hands, according to the UN Monitoring Team. Saad Atef al-Awlaqi, AQAP’s “second in command,” was reportedly killed during the “same operation” that netted Batarfi. (FDD’s Long War Journal hasn’t confirmed Awlaqi’s fate either.) And another influential AQAP leader in Abyan, Al-Khadr al-Walidi, “was killed in November.”
AQAP is also “suffering an erosion of its ranks” due to internal dissent and “desertions.” The UN Monitoring Team says the defectors are “led primarily by one of Batarfi’s ex-lieutenants,” a jihadist known as Abu Omar al-Nahdi.
Despite leadership losses and another significant disruptions, AQAP has still been able to mount some significant attacks. But the group is clearly under pressure.
Al Qaeda has lost a number of senior figures over the past year and a half. The aforementioned Raymi was struck down in Jan. 2020. In June 2020, Abdulmalek Droukdel, the longtime emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in a French counterterrorism operation in Mali. In Aug. 2020, al Qaeda’s deputy emir, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down alongside his daughter by Israeli assassins in a suburb of Tehran. Husam Abd-al-Ra’uf, a senior al Qaeda leader also known as Abu Muhsin al-Masri, was killed by Afghan forces in Oct. 2020.
The UN Monitoring Team notes that al Qaeda has “endured a period of high leadership attrition, “with multiple losses in Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, Yemen” and Idlib, Syria. There were rumors floated concerning Ayman al Zawahiri’s own death last October, but “no [UN] Member State has been able to confirm such reports to the Monitoring Team.”