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Al-Awlaki's Takeover

The future of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula between fragmentation and subordination

25 March 2024

Al-Qaeda's branch in the Arabian Peninsula on March 10, 2024, announced the death of its leader, Khalid Saeed Batarfi, also known as Abu Miqdad al-Kindi, in a statement read by al-Qaeda veteran Ibrahim al-Qosi (also known as Sheikh Abu Khubayb al-Sudani). The statement did not specify the cause of Batarfi's death, nor did it use the word "martyr," which would have implied that he had been killed. In the statement, AQAP also announced the appointment of Saad bin Atef Al-Awlaki as Batarfi's successor, becoming the fifth leader of the terror organization, which suggests a smooth transition of leadership, ruling out the hypothesis of an internal conspiracy to assassinate him.

Batarfi's death may have occurred earlier, with the announcement delayed until the situation stabilized for the new leader, just before the beginning of the current month of Ramadan, given that the group was marred by discord between Batarfi and Al-Awlaki. The two figures were leading "two conflicting wings in the group," according to the 32nd report of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, announced in July 2023. Batarfi's appointment as the new emir of the group four years ago was not by consensus but by the opinion of the largest possible number of the group's consultative council (Shura council) members and dignitaries, because of the circumstances of war, according to a statement by the organization at the time.

The announcement of Batarfi's death and Al-Awlaki's appointment as the new AQAP leader comes at an eventful time, raising questions about the implications of the new development for the organization's internal situation and its future relationship with the central leadership of Al-Qaeda and the components of the Yemeni scene, which necessitates a look at the status of Al-Qaeda during Batarfi's era and an attempt to forecast its evolution during Al-Awlaki's era.

Batarfi's Era: The Situation Continues Unchanged

Batarfi assumed the leadership of AQAP in February 2020, succeeding Qassem al-Rimi, and derived his authority from being one of the veteran figures who lived through pivotal stages in the history of Al-Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden. He traveled to Afghanistan in 1999, trained at the famous Al-Farouq Training Camp, and fought in defense of the Taliban emirate against the Western invasion following the 2001 9/11 attacks.

After being forced by the US army to flee to Iran, Tehran handed him over to the Yemeni government in 2004, and then was released in 2010, only to join AQAP, where he was appointed as the emir of Abyan province in Yemen and the leader of the organization there. But Batarfi was soon arrested by Yemeni forces in March 2011 and was jailed in the central prison of Mukalla until 2015, when Al-Qaeda stormed the prison and freed its prisoners. Batarfi also held important positions, including being the filed commander in Hadramout and the head of the media and propaganda department, the Sharia judge and spokesperson of the organization, as well as a member of its Shura Council.

Batarfi did not adopt a specific policy during his leadership of AQAP; he maintained the features of Qassem al-Rimi's era, as both of them were subject to the authority of the leader Saif al-Adel, who reportedly succeeded in expanding his influence within Al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate in 2017 and 2018, by reportedly intervening in arranging its internal affairs and promoting figures under his leadership such as Ibrahim Abu Saleh and Ammar al-Sana'ani. Thus, Batarfi became surrounded by a tight network of jihadist leaders who were personally loyal to Saif al-Adel.

Batarfi's loyalty to Saif al-Adel and adherence to the policy of his predecessor, al-Rimi, throughout the past four years, did not help save the organization from its continuous decline after its powerful leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, was killed in 2015. This was confirmed by a report by the Security Council's Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, released on January 29, 2024, stating that AQAP attacks became less frequent and more reactive, but nonetheless, the group persists as a threat despite facing constant operational and financial challenges due to counterterrorism pressure and successive leadership losses.

The organization, founded in 2009, reached its golden age after the war between the Yemeni legitimate government forces and the Houthi militia broke out in 2014. Taking advantage of the war, AQAP expanded into areas of southern and southeastern Yemen under the name Ansar al-Sharia, taking control of the city of Mukalla in early April 2015, attacking Saudi territories, and masterminding high-profile attacks including on the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015.

Despite its attack on the US military base in Florida in 2019, recruitment of about 3,000 fighters deployed mainly in Abyan, Marib, and areas in Hadramout, and having hideouts in Shabwa and a small presence in Al-Mahrah, the organization's operations have been dwindling after its leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi was killed on June 12, 2015, and its prominent figures such as Nasr al-Ansi, Mamoun Hatem, Ibrahim al-Rabish, Mohannad Ghaleb, Jalal Belaidi, Amar al-Sanani, and Abu Umair al-Hadrami, fell one after another, in addition to being forced to retreat in the south by the forces of the Arab Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen between 2015-2022.

The organization's decline was associated with spreading internal disputes faced by Batarfi, who continued a campaign to chase spies launched by his predecessor al-Rimi. The campaign included the random execution of figures such as Atheer al-Nahdi, Saeed Shakra, Fayyadh al-Hadrami, and Abu Maryam al-Azdi. The internal opposition to Batarfi worsened as he failed to regain the trust of the disgruntled members and stop accusations of espionage, membership suspension, and dissensions and desertions, led primarily by one of Batarfi's ex-lieutenants, Abu Omar al-Nahdi, which overall led to AQAP "suffering an erosion of its ranks," according to a February 3, 2021 report by the Security Council.

Al-Nahdi was determined to publicly expose the significant violations, deviations from Sharia, and great injustices prevalent in the organization, following the footsteps of his predecessors like Sanad al-Wuhayshi ( a brother of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the first leader of the organization) who defected in protest against al-Rimi's policy and explained his stance in a statement titled "Why I Left Al-Qaeda."

The Era of Al-Awlaki: Fragmentation and Subordination

Al-Awlaki, also known as "Abu Al-Laith," is a Yemeni citizen from Shabwah Governorate who joined AQAP in 2010 and was believed to be second in command to Batarfi. He held AQAP's leadership council membership and served as the Emir of Shabwah Province until 2014. Later, he was appointed as a member of the organization's Shura Council and became responsible for Operations Management.

Al-Awlaki inherited from Batarfi, who opposed his decisions without rebelling against them, an organization in crisis. This forced him to devise a new plan to manage disputes, fortify internal fronts, and regain social support. Simultaneously, he adopted a "cautious diplomacy" in dealing with the Houthis to avoid gratuitous involvement and uncertain outcomes. Thus, Al-Awlaki's leadership of AQAP would be haunted by two intertwined concerns:

1. The Issue of fragmentation:

The organization is haunted by fragmentation amidst internal rifts. Therefore, Al-Awlaki prioritizes fortifying the front line and investing in its Yemeni roots by engaging tribal elements. His affiliation with the influential Al-Awlaq tribe and his blood ties to the charismatic leader Anwar al-Awlaki afforded him, according to a UN report announced in July 2023, the support of some Yemeni tribes. The Yemeni society is tribal-centric, where the authority of the sheik (chief of the tribe) and kinship ties hold significant sway. Consequently, the foreign element's control over the organization's leadership, especially during Batarfi's tenure, heightened tribal concerns. Tribes became more cautious about his plans and refused to succumb to his threats in November 2022 when given the choice to join him against the Arab coalition or be considered a bunch of enemies.

Furthermore, he failed to win their support during his speech in January 2023. Instead, they chose to support the joint forces against AQAP in Shabwah and Abyan. Some tribes, like the Al-Mundheri tribe, reached agreements with the Houthis, allowing them to remain in their areas after the Houthis seized control of Al-Sawma'ah. This reality showcased the organization's decline, losing its strongholds in Abyan, Shabwah, Hadhramaut, and Al-Mahra provinces, with its financial resources dwindling and struggling against the Southern forces' Operation Eastern Arrows.

Thus, Al-Awlaki might resume the mission he undertook in April 2023, aiming to resolve the grievances of the organization's elements, especially in Shabwah, convincing them to return in exchange for resuming financial support. That is because he then failed to get approval from Batarfi, who, according to media sources, cited the organization's financial deficit. But now, after Batarfi left the scene, Al-Awlaki would find an opportunity to assert himself. Otherwise, he would be considered an accomplice to Batarfi's procrastination and collusion.

However, the success of Al-Awlaki's mission requires restructuring the organization's security apparatus, with the presence of the Egyptian Ibrahim Muhammad Saleh Al-Banna, who is close to Saif al-Adel and Batarfi and who was accused of creating loyalties within the organization, expelling elements who were not loyal to him, committing atrocities against suspects of espionage and betrayal, which were sometimes carried out as part of an internal settling of scores. Additionally, he removed the so-called Al-Hadharem Group, which is responsible for the organization's finances. According to media reports, in May 2023, they were involved in embezzlement. He implicated the sons of senior leaders, such as Saleh Aboulan, Lotfi Al-Yazidi, and Abbas Hamdan, and showed evidence and testimonies condemning four other elements, Ashour Omar, Adel Badra, Abdullah bin Hamal, and Suleiman Aboulan, of corruption.

2. The issue of subordination:

The organization's subordination to Saif al-Adel, the presumed successor to former Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. He adopts a pragmatic interpretation of Sharia politics, allowing "collaboration" with the Houthis. This blurs the organization's Salafist identity and affects its social incubator. The organization finds itself subordinate to Saif al-Adel due to Batarfi's and, before that, al-Rimi's attempts to confront pressures from the Arab coalition and US airstrikes. This involves aligning with his vision of engaging in "positive interaction" with Iran's geopolitical interests and coordinating combat efforts with the Houthis. An early indication of this trend was Batarfi's refusal, in 2021, to fight the Houthis after they gained control of some districts in Shabwah. Instead, he increased security coordination with them while focusing on fighting the Yemeni legitimate government forces.

Hence, AQAP's subordination presents a burden on Al-Awlaki, which he cannot resist without curbing the influence of foreign elements linked to Saif al-Adel, who increased their presence. Al-Awlaki fell victim to this growing influence after he was deprived of succeeding al-Rimi at the organization's helm due to Saif al-Adel's pivotal role in promoting Al-Awlaki's rival Batarfi, according to media reports.

The repercussions of AQAP subordination are likely to worsen amidst the continuation and expansion of the Gaza war and the US redesignation of the Houthis as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT). This implies the possibility of intensified counterterrorism campaigns in Yemen, turning the organization's leadership and positions into open targets for Western strikes at a time when AQAP finds itself devoid of decision-making authority, acting in a reactionary rather than proactive manner planned and controlled by Iran and its so-called "axis of resistance."

In conclusion, Al-Awlaki acknowledges the importance of restoring AQAP's independence and fortifying the organization's front lines. That is why, in February 2023, he attacked Iran and the Houthi allies in an attempt to convince southern Yemen's tribes to support the organization. However, he also recognizes Yemen's symbolic importance in the history of Al-Qaeda, which is unwilling to accept the Yemeni branch's separation. He understands that internal consolidation may require appeasing the Houthis, who have no interest in restoring the organization's strength. Furthermore, regaining tribal support necessitates addressing their interests rather than ideological allegiances, which have waned, with elements supporting whoever pays more, whether the Houthis or ISIS.

Therefore, Al-Awlaki's approach to the conflict equation in Yemen will face the complexities associated with its variables (ceasefire, regional neighborhood, the Houthis, the international coalition, etc.). His success in interacting with them will hinge on his ability to confront internal challenges and external pressures at a time when the organization is tempted to refrain from attacks and limit itself to verbal incitement without operational supervision. This is especially true as local concerns take precedence over global ambitions, given that its activities have contracted within limited areas in Yemen, becoming increasingly known as the branch of Al-Qaeda in "Yemen" rather than in "the Arabian Peninsula."