Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch leader Batarfi dead in unclear circumstances

March 12, 2024 01:19 am | Updated 01:20 am IST - DUBAI

The AQAP, considered the most dangerous active Al-Qaeda branch had claimed the 2015 attack on French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The AQAP, considered the most dangerous active Al-Qaeda branch had claimed the 2015 attack on French weekly Charlie Hebdo. | Photo Credit: AP

The leader of Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda is dead, the militant group announced late on Sunday, without giving details.

Khalid al-Batarfi had a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government over leading the group in the peninsula, through years that saw him imprisoned, freed in a jailbreak, and governing forces in Yemen amid that country’s grinding war.

Though believed to be weakened in recent years due to infighting and suspected U.S. drone strikes killing its leaders, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been considered the most dangerous branch of the extremist group still operating after the killing of founder Osama bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda released a video showing Batarfi wrapped in a white funeral shroud and al-Qaeda’s black-and-white flag.

Militants offered no details on the cause of his death and there was no clear sign of trauma visible on his face. Batarfi was believed to be in his early 40s.

“Allah took his soul while he patiently sought his reward and stood firm, immigrated, garrisoned, and waged jihad,” the militants said in the video, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

The group made the announcement on the eve of Ramzan, the Muslim holy fasting month that Yemen will begin on Monday.

In the announcement, the group said Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki would take over as its leader. The U.S. has a $6 million bounty on him, saying Awlaki “has publicly called for attacks against the United States and its allies.”

Batarfi, born in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, had travelled to Afghanistan in 1999 and fought alongside the Taliban during the U.S.-led invasion. He joined AQAP in 2010 and led forces in taking over Yemen’s Abyan province, according to the U.S.

Batarfi took over as the head of the branch in February 2020. He succeeded leader Qassim al-Rimi, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike. 

“Although in decline, AQAP remains the most effective terrorist group in Yemen with intent to conduct operations in the region and beyond,” a recent United Nations report on Al-Qaeda said.

Estimates provided to the UN put AQAP’s total forces as numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 active fighters and passive members. 

Under Batarfi, AQAP fell further under the influence of al-Qaeda fighter Saif al-Adl, now believed to have led the militant group after the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in 2022. That came as Yemen has been locked in a war between the Houthi rebels, who hold the capital, Sanaa, and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition backing the country’s exiled government based in Aden.

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