Middle EastTerrorism

New Leader for Al-Qaeda’s Infamous but Struggling Yemen Branch

Saad al-Awlaki has taken the helm of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after the death of its former leader, looking to unite the extremist group and change course after a steep decline.

Based in war-torn Yemen’s south, AQAP is considered by Washington as the Sunni Muslim Al-Qaeda network’s most dangerous branch.

It has claimed numerous high-profile attacks in the United States and Europe, including the 2015 assault on Charlie Hebdo magazine in France’s capital that killed 12 people, but these have dropped in recent years.

AQAP announced earlier this month that Awlaki had succeeded Khalid Batarfi, who died after a long illness, according to Yemeni sources close to the group. Like other sources AFP has spoken to, they requested anonymity to discuss the extremist group.

Assem al-Sabri, an expert on jihadist groups, said the decline in AQAP’s actions was due to internal divisions, “a financial crisis,” and fighting against rival Yemeni forces.

Awlaki, a Yemeni national wanted by the United States, could herald “a major renewal for the organisation,” Sabri said.

The new leader has good relations with powerful Yemeni tribes — particularly in his home governorate of Shabwa, an AQAP stronghold — that could revitalise the group, a tribal official told AFP.

Born in 2009 from the merger of Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi factions, AQAP grew and developed in the chaos of Yemen’s war which since 2015 has pitted Iran-backed Houthi rebels against a Saudi-led coalition.

But AQAP is now just one of many armed groups in southern Yemen, including Islamic State group jihadists and UAE-trained separatist militias who back the internationally recognized government against the Houthis.

Since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack — AQAP’s most notorious — and a 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, internal crises have put a brake on its operations abroad, Sabri said.

In February 2020, AQAP suffered a major blow when its powerful leader Qassim al-Rimi was killed in a US strike.

Rimi was replaced with Batarfi, who was in turn succeeded by Awlaki — wanted over calls “for attacks against the United States and its allies,” according to the US State Department.

Washington is offering a reward of up to $6 million for information leading to his identification or location.

As the new leader, Awlaki will work to close the group’s ranks, according to Sabri, who said AQAP under his rule may even seek to relaunch attacks in Western countries.

Awlaki, a member of AQAP’s advisory council, has broad support from its religious and military leaders who now look to him to mobilize fighters, Yemeni sources close to the group told AFP.

A tribal source said that Awlaki may use his ties with local leaders “to restore the organisation’s tribal base, especially in Shabwa,” once a launching pad for its operations, and to “rebuild its strongholds that were destroyed by government forces.”

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