Al-Qaida's Yemen Branch Says Leader Khalid Al-Batarfi Dead In Unclear Circumstances

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- The leader of Yemen's branch of al-Qaida is dead, the militant group announced late Sunday, without giving details.

Khalid al-Batarfi had a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government over leading the group, al-Qaida in the Arabian 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 group known by the acronym AQAP has long been considered the most dangerous branch of the extremist group still operating after the killing of founder Osama bin Laden.

Al-Qaida released a video showing al-Batarfi wrapped in a white funeral shroud and al-Qaida'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. Al-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 for His sake," the militants said in the video, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

The group made the announcement on the eve of Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month that Yemen will begin 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 al-Awlaki "has publicly called for attacks against the United States and its allies."

The Yemen branch of al-Qaida has been seen by Washington as the terror network's most dangerous branch ever since its attempt in 2009 to bomb a commercial airliner over the United States. It claimed responsibility for the 2015 deadly attack in Paris on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. But their overseas operations have waned in recent years.

"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-Qaida said.

Estimates provided to the U.N. put AQAP's total forces as numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 active fighters and passive members. The group raises money by robbing banks and money exchange shops, as well as smuggling weapons, counterfeiting currencies and ransom operations, according to the U.N.

Al-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 ordered by then-President Donald Trump. Al-Rimi had claimed responsibility for the 2019 attack at the U.S. Naval Air Station Pensacola in which a Saudi aviation trainee killed three American sailors.

Under al-Batarfi, AQAP fell further under the influence of al-Qaida 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-led coalition backing the country's exiled government based in Aden.

"Since 2020, Saif al-Adel has been able to convince al-Batarfi of his strategic approach, focused on confronting Western states and their allies in Yemen -- the Saudi-led coalition, the Aden-based government, the United Arab Emirates and its allies -- rather than confronting the Iranian-backed Houthi movement," a 2023 report by the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies said.

Al-Adl is believed to be in Iran, part of a longtime al-Qaida presence in the Islamic Republic. That's long been denied by Tehran but backed up by documents seized in the 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden, who orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

Al-Batarfi's ties to al-Adl had strained relations in AQAP, experts say. However, it has seen the militants become armed with bomb-carrying drones -- something the Houthis now use to target shipping in the Red Sea amid the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

AQAP "developed unmanned aerial systems capabilities, establishing a specialized drone unit, with operational training from the Houthis," a U.N. report from January says. "It prioritizes liberating its prisoners to replenish ranks; in September, the Houthis released several AQAP members and explosives experts."

The Shiite Zaydi Houthis have previously denied working with AQAP, a Sunni extremist group. However, AQAP targeting of the Houthis has dropped in recent years while the militants continue to attack Saudi-led coalition forces.

Yemen's history and tribal structure long has seen alliances rapidly shift, something its late strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh referred to as "dancing on the heads of snakes."

Al-Batarfi, born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, traveled 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.

In 2015, he was freed after an AQAP raid that saw the militants capture Mukalla, the capital of Yemen's largest province, Hadramawt, amid the chaos of the war. A photo at the time showed al-Awlaki with a Kalashnikov rifle, posing inside a government palace there.

AQAP was later pushed out of Mukalla but has continued attacks and been the target of a U.S. drone strike campaign since the administration of then-President George W. Bush.

In 2020, there had been claims that al-Bartafi had been detained, which later were denied. In 2021, he appeared in a militant video and referred to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as "only the tip of the iceberg of what will come to them, God willing."