Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula names new emir; U.S. has $6 million bounty on his head

Photo of AQAP’s new emir, Sa’ad Bin Atef al-Awlaki.

In a newly released video, Ibrahim al-Qosi, a veteran official within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), announced the sudden death of AQAP’s emir, Khalid al-Batarfi. 

At the same time, al-Qosi announced that Sa’ad bin Atef al-Awlaki, a member of AQAP’s top shura council, was selected to succeed Batarfi as the group’s leader. To note, the United States currently has a $6 million bounty on Al-Awlaki’s head. 

The relatively short video released by AQAP did not specify how Batarfi met his demise. Instead, al-Qosi simply stated that Batarfi died and did not elaborate further. Al-Qosi celebrated Batarfi’s long history in jihad, which included fighting alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Following his stint in Afghanistan, Batarfi then went to Yemen where the Saudi national became AQAP’s leader for Abyan Governorate in 2010. He was arrested by Yemeni authorities in 2011 and imprisoned until 2015 when he was freed in an al-Qaeda-led jailbreak in the port city of Mukalla. 

After rising to a position as a senior official on the group’s main shura council, Batarfi then took over the reigns of AQAP in early 2020 after the death of Qasim al-Raymi. As earlier assessed by FDD’ Long War Journal, Batarfi’s lengthy al-Qaeda pedigree likely meant that Batarfi also played a role within al Qaeda’s global management team. 

In yesterday’s video, al-Qosi then explained that Sa’ad bin Atef Al-Awlaki was chosen as the successor of Batarfi to take over as the overall emir of AQAP. Al-Awlaki, who only recently became more camera-friendly, had long served as a deputy to Batarfi, one of the top officials on AQAP’s main shura council, and the group’s emir for Yemen’s Shabwa Governorate

As his name suggests, Al-Awlaki is a member of the influential Awlaki tribe, which plays a prominent role within al Qaeda. Another infamous Awlaki is Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadi preacher who held an influential role within AQAP as well a beloved preacher for al Qaeda within jihadi circles and an critical recruiter of westerners. Anwar helped found AQAP’s Inspire Magazine, which encouraged Western Muslims to wage jihad both at home as well as within Muslim countries.

Anwar also served as a key facilitator for AQAP’s external operations branch. The U.S. killed Anwar in a drone strike in Al Jawf province in Sept. 2011. His son, Abdul Rahman, who said he hoped “to attain martyrdom as my father attained it” and was described by AQAP as a “lion’s cub,” was killed in a U.S. strike that targeted AQAP’s media emir in Shabwa Governorate in Dec. 2011.

AQAP remains a significant threat

Though in a relatively weakened state compared to its operational height in the early-to-mid-2010s, AQAP continues to be a significant threat to Yemen and further afield. In the United Nations Sanctions and Monitoring team’s most recent report, it noted AQAP’s media resurgence since Hamas’ Oct. 7, 2023, invasion of Israel, which AQAP (among others) have capitalized on for their own purposes. 

On the ground, AQAP has also intensified its military operations against both UAE-backed militias and hostile tribal forces in southern Yemen. The most recent report noted that AQAP maintained strong ties back to al Qaeda’s central leadership and especially Sayf al-Adl, widely believed to be al Qaeda’s current global emir. 

Al-Adl’s son, Khaled Mohammed Salahaldin Zidane, is currently deployed to Yemen as his personal representative, where he “plays a critical role in recruitment, media and managing AQAP internal strife,” according to the UN. 

Some of this aforementioned internal strife, which reportedly included disagreements between Batarfi and Al-Awlaki, likely stems from AQAP’s current strategy to not target the Houthis, which in prior years were a major enemy of the al Qaeda branch. 

Indeed, the most recent UN report also noted reported instances of the Houthis training AQAP in the use of drones, while the Houthis have also released AQAP members it had previously arrested. AQAP has also not claimed any attacks on the Houthis in several years.

It remains unclear if this calculus changes with the death of Batarfi. A 2023 report from the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies noted that while Al-Awlaki respected and often deferred to Al-Adl’s leadership and decisions, he nevertheless disagreed on not targeting the Houthis. To note, despite reported disagreements with al-Adl and some of his directives, the Sana’a Center report also makes clear that the AQAP leaders nevertheless remained loyal to al-Qaeda and its overall vision.

Despite the death of Batarfi, however, AQAP’s trajectory currently remains upward thanks to policies implemented under his emirship and al-Adl’s tutelage. As noted by the UN’s most recent report, “AQAP remains the most effective terrorist group in Yemen with intent to conduct operations in the region and beyond.” Whether new amir Sa’ad Bin Atef al-Awlaki can continue this attempted revival is now the key question. 

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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