It’s the sort of embarrassing spectacle we’ve seen time and time again over the past 20 years. A terrorist leader is announced killed or captured, only to reappear days or weeks later, very much alive and free. This time it was the UN’s Al-Qaeda Monitoring Team that made the mistake.
In a report dated February 3, 2021, the UN team claimed that Khaled Batarfi, the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), “was arrested during an operation in Ghaydah city, Al-Mahra governorate, in October .” A few days later, AQAP released a video that showed Batarfi enjoying his freedom; to clearly date the video, Batarfi referenced the January 6 storming of the US Capitol.
So, what happened? How did the UN get this so wrong, and what is happening with AQAP in Yemen?
The UN is correct that a raid was conducted. On October 2, 2020, security forces in Al-Mahra located and raided an AQAP cell. In the subsequent clash, three gunmen were killed and the rest of the AQAP members were arrested.
This raid added to the sense of uncertainty and division within AQAP that had plagued the group for much of last year. In January 2020, Qasim al-Raymi, the then head of AQAP, was killed in a US drone strike. Within weeks, AQAP announced Batarfi as Al-Raymi’s successor. However, not everyone in the group was pleased with the decision and 2020 saw significant unrest within AQAP’s ranks.
A few weeks after the October raid, the Islamic State’s (IS) media wing in Yemen announced that Batarfi had surrendered to Yemeni government forces, who handed him over to the Saudi authorities. Then came February’s UN report, which claimed not only that Batarfi had been captured but that AQAP second-in-command Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki had been killed in the October raid.
Whether Al-Awlaki was killed remains unclear. It is possible that the UN team made a second mistake in declaring him dead. Multiple security sources in Yemen confirmed to me that, despite the UN team’s claims, Batarfi was never arrested.
It appears that the UN team misreported this information on the basis of a mistaken identity. (The error may or may not have originated with the team, which does not have an investigative mandate and is instead dependent on information it receives from UN member states.) According to security sources I spoke with, one of the jihadis arrested in the October raid was named Aref Batarfi; the surname was enough to initially attract the attention of Yemeni and American officers. However, interrogations revealed that Aref was a recruit from Hadramawt who was not related to Saudi-born Khaled Batarfi.
This is not the first time Al-Mahra has been mistakenly reported to have witnessed an extremist leader’s capture. In 2019, the Saudi-led coalition announced that it had arrested IS leader in Yemen, Abu Osama al-Muhajir, following an operation in Al-Ghaydah. But security and local sources said the IS leader, whose real name is Khalid al-Marfadi, was actually arrested during an intelligence operation in Marib governorate in 2019.
There does appear, however, to be a growing jihadi interest in Al-Mahra. From 2011-2017, AQAP relied on its position in Hadramawt, Shabwa and Abyan to control smuggling routes. But, according to security personnel, after AQAP was pushed out of these governorates in 2016 and 2017, it activated sleeper cells in Al-Mahra, the entry point for most of the goods smuggled into eastern Yemen. According to multiple sources, Khalid Batarfi has visited Al-Mahra on more than one occasion in recent years.
AQAP appears to want to achieve two things in Al-Mahra. First, it wants to augment its sources of funding and arms. Second, it is looking to increase its organizational influence over Al-Qaeda’s branches in the Horn of Africa, particularly Al-Shabab, through the smuggling of weapons. AQAP remains the symbolic head of Al-Qaeda’s wings in West Africa and the Horn of Africa.
This is a result both of AQAP’s position in the jihadi universe and of Batarfi’s potential candidacy to one day succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as head of Al-Qaeda. Before succeeding Al-Raymi, Batarfi spent two years overseeing a purge of AQAP’s ranks to remove moles and spies, which led to the execution of dozens and may have been at the root of some of the internal dissension.
Some analysts believe AQAP is weak and nearly defeated. The UN’s report of Batarfi’s arrest and Al-Awlaki’s death fits nicely into this narrative. The narrative around AQAP’s decline is based on two factors: the group’s recent inability to strike foreign targets and rumors of internal strife. Batarfi tried to refute this understanding in the video, by emphasizing that the organization is, first and foremost, at war with the US. Either way, as Batarfi’s re-emergence makes clear, AQAP is far from a disassembled entity.
This commentary appeared in Houthis at the Gates of Marib – The Yemen Review, January-February 2021
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