A Loud Return: Why AQAP intensifying their operations in South Yemen?


Mon, 24-05-2021 07:17 PM, Aden

Hussam Radman (South24)

Early this year, a brief UN report stated that Yemeni security forces have successfully captured AQAP leader "Khalid Batarfi" in a special operation at Al Mahrah governorate south-eastern Yemen. Regardless of all the publicity the report has made, the Jihadist organization did not rush into commenting but otherwise maintained silence to lure their opponents in exceeding their false story. [1] At the same time, these rumors represented one of the testing balloons that Batarfi has invested to test out real and growing opposition within the Jihadist movement.

Batarfi did not inaugurate the "Emir" title in AQAP smoothly, he had faced two fundamental challenges that threaten his leading legitimacy, firstly by "Al-Nahdeen" assembly which decided to "quit" the organization and did not pledge obedience to Batarfi, and secondly when ISIS activity vigorously came back to compete on leading the Jihadist movement in Yemen, threatening AQAP holdings in Al-Bayda governorate and trying their best to take advantage of the leading absence left by Al-Reemi's death. [2] Just after Batarfi was done neutralizing inner threats which took him a full year of his activity, he had begun in planning a chain of field operations to prove by which he is free and running loose as well for proving the organization's on-ground effectiveness regardless of security punches they received.

Late March, the organization's field operations returned by targeting Security Belt forces in Abyan governorate, followed by another attack last April when AQAP claimed responsibility for targeting Arab Coalition headquarter – where UAE armed forces reside – in Balhaf facility, Shabwah governorate. The organization has continued its lightning operations against pro-STC security forces more than once. [3] 

After these initial results, Batarfi has shown up in his first filmed footage since his arrest reports. Broadcasted on AQAP media branch "Al-Malahim" and documenting the organization's operation against security forces in Abyan, followed by a short speech for AQAP leader inciting against "Southern people" and to revolt against the STC "by hand, tongue [word, mouth or talk] or heart". Whoever not able to fight against the STC has to protest and demonstrate against them or at least withdraw his descendants from STC's forces, he added. 

It is almost the first time that Batarfi decides to use the word "South", "Al-Waheshi" and "Al-Reemi" had previously used similar words, "Sunni tribal families" and "combating Harat youth" for examples. This speech represented one of the ideologic adaptation mechanism that the organization has been adopting to invest in local identities (rural and urban) and redeployment in Sunni Yemeni regions which had suffered earlier from Houthi's invasion.

Batarfi's open talk on "South" is considered an important indicator of the future approach to the terrorist organization and his desire to relocate in southern and eastern governorates under the control of the legitimate government (Abyan, Shabwah and Wadi Hadhramaut), taking as much possible the advantage of political contradictions and security gaps present in the opposite Houthi camp.  

Abyan's Operations and AQAP Vision

The organization's return has focused on Abyan as a theatre of operations, and this consist with Al-Reemi's strategic vision which was carried out by Batarfi. The vision consists of 3 elements: 

1. The STC and UAE leading the ideologic and strategic enemies lists inside Yemen followed by the Houthis and ISIS respectively, while the organization plays an invisible role in Marib clashes against the Houthi, [4] As well for increasing media and security presence in Abyan which formed a soft ground in draining the STC's resources.

2. To maintain a tactical relationship between AQAP and political Islamic forces present within the legitimate government's structure led by the Islah party. Refloating organization members and middle-class leaders to Shabwah and Abyan and take advantage of the military and political mobilization against the STC and UAE to facilitate their mobility and pave the ground for building safe havens in the two governorate's rural areas. New classified information shows that two prominent leaders of the organization, "Saleh Ahmed Al-Samil", Mahfad district organization's Emir and "Nasser Saeed Lakraa" intelligence Emir in the governorate, whom both died a few days ago in a car accident in Abyan, were both in close contact with military and security chiefs belonging to the legitimate government and arranged placement of massive numbers of organization's members into the ranks of the national army centered in Abyan.

3. To maintain strategic latency and avoid centralizing as a ruling authority in any geographical spot as well for building the organizational structure with what in line with the current security environment. It is likely that the organizational leadership has abandoned their previous structure which was divided into two levels: The international level known for the Jihadist base in the Arabian Peninsula and a local level known as "Ansar Al-Sharia". The latest version of the organization seems to combine both levels by a central command for two reasons: First, there are no longer authoritarian regions for the organization to lead through local leaderships. The second is due to lack of resources and the increasing intelligence breaches and the spark of inner splits which all made Batarfi take a centralized grip on the organizational structure and reduce any independency. 

A Sustainable Legitimacy Issue... And The Possibility of Broadening the Goal Bank 

Despite relative success AQAP achieved in the previous elements, Batarfi is still suffering from a sustainable "legitimate issue" due to his poor history credit in comparison to the Yemeni Jihadist Sheikhs (Al-Waheshi and Al-Reemi). Batarfi will not be able to overcome this issue except by two steps: First, to carry out unique operations in Aden and Mukalla that targets leading figures in the STC, Yemeni government or Hadrami Elite force. The second is by performing external operations against western interests even it was signified as lone wolves style.

Batarfi will be more impulsive in accomplishing these two steps, in parallel to the intense question of who will take global leadership of Al-Qaeda organization with the imminent departure of al-Zawahiri. Historically, AQAP was the most vicious competitor in obtaining the leadership spot and relocating the center of Jihadist gravity to Yemen after it started to vanish from Afghanistan.

All things considered, Batarfi has rearranged his strategic priorities and redefined his enemies and friends. Also provided multiple interim compromises such as his backing-off of declaring an authoritarian emirate despite the fragility of the security situation in the legitimacy holdings and not seizing state resources. It's all in return to extremely benefiting from the conflict in South Yemen and building safe havens that allows the organization to reposition, capture their breath and resume their major strikes in and out Yemen. Until then, Batarfi aspires to reinforce his inner legitimacy by displaying his power in Abyan and seeking at the same time to fuel mutual tensions between legitimate government forces and the STC as well for exploding a military confrontation between them.

More precisely, the failure of the Riyadh Agreement became a vital interest to AQAP. The coincidence that his calculations are aligned viciously with the Houthi group and with the interest of other elite forces that dominate the legitimate government decision-making which seeks to monopolize power. Therefore, it is unlikely that counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen can be separated from the aspired political compromise course in South.

Hussam Radman
A journalist and political researcher from South Yemen. His research focuses on southern movement and militant Islamist groups.

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- Photo: A screenshot of (From the Field) AQAP video by (@war_noir)

AQAPABYANsecurity belt forcesSouthern Transitional CouncilYemeni governmentSouth YemenYemenSaudia Arabiaal-QaedaMuslim Brotherhood