Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Leadership Transition

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Announces the Death of Its Leader

  • Reporting from March 9 revealed that AQAP announced the death of its leader, Khalid Batarfi, through a video broadcast. 
    • AQAP did not release details on the time or cause of Batarfi’s passing. 
    • The statement utilized the phrase “who Allah took,” which experts note usually describes a person who passed away, rather than was killed.
  • Batarfi, who was believed to be in his 40s, was a U.S.-designated global terrorist
    • He was appointed as AQAP leader in February 2020 after his predecessor, Qassim al-Rimi, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. 
    • Prior to his appointment as leader, Batarfi was the top commander for AQAP in Yemen’s Abyan Governorate and a member of the group’s Shura Council.
    • In 2015, Batarfi was freed from a Yemeni prison when AQAP captured the port city of Mukalla. 
  • In the statement, AQAP named Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki, also believed to be in his 40s,  as its new leader.
    • The U.S. has a $6 million reward for information on Awlaki, who “has publicly called for attacks against the United States and its allies.” 
    • U.S. rewards offers from 2019 cited Awlaki as the emir of Yemen’s Shabwah province. 
    • Awlaki was last seen in a February 2023 video urging “Sunni tribesmen in the Yemeni provinces of Abyan and Shabwa to ‘resist overtures by the United Arab Emirates and the [separatist] Southern Transitional Council to join their fight against AQAP.’”
  • Awlaki and Batarfi reportedly led conflicting wings within AQAP. 

Current Status of AQAP

  • The U.S. has considered AQAP to be “the most dangerous faction of the global extremists network,” since the group attempted to bomb a commercial airliner over the U.S. in 2009.
  • AQAP has historically been willing and able to carry out attacks domestically, in Yemen, and abroad, including in the United States.
    • In 2019, one of its members conducted a mass shooting on a U.S. naval base in Florida, killing three U.S. sailors. 
    • The group has also conducted attacks in Saudi Arabia and against both Houthi and government forces in Yemen. 
  • AQAP formed in 2009 out of a merger between Al Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni branches and was the “primary beneficiary of the civil war in Yemen” and the resulting power vacuum. 
  • Current UN estimates indicate that AQAP’s forces number from 3,000-4,000 active fighters and passive members. 
    • Last July, UN experts stated that the group was facing “setbacks and leadership losses due to sustained counter-terrorism pressure.”
  • Though reports regarding Al-Qaeda’s leadership model differ, the group largely appears to have “devolved operational responsibility to regional affiliates as it has shifted away from centrally directed plotting.”

The 2024 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community notes that Al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan have reached a nadir, though the group’s “regional affiliates on the African continent and Yemen will sustain the global network as the group maintains its strategic intent to target the United States and U.S. citizens.”



(Banner image: Ho/Al-Malahem Media/AFP)

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