Photo: Saad Bin Atef al-Awlaki (courtesy of Arab media platforms - improved by ‘South24 Center’)

The New AQAP Leader: The Choice of Necessity


Wed, 27-03-2024 04:43 PM, Aden

Although Batarfi tried to incite the local tribes against the Southern forces and the UAE during his tenure, he failed to do so. However, Al-Awlaki’s words, published in one of his books in 2019 and which haven’t been widely circulated, bet on his affiliation to the Southern areas in one way or another. Thus, this would now constitute a possible challenge to the Southern forces. 

Ibrahim Ali* (South24)

Unlike in the case of its former leaders, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced the death - and not the killing - of its leader Khaled Batarfi. The latter had succeeded Qasim al-Raymi, who was killed in an American drone strike in 2020. 

In a video released on platforms affiliated with the organization, AQAP leader ‘Abu Khubaib Al-Sudani’, read out a surprising statement on Batarfi’s sudden death on March 11, without offering any further details regarding his death. However, exclusive sources told ‘South24 Center’ that Batarfi was suffering from a disease that required shifting him to hospital, but his security situation prevented such a move. Consequently, he died after a struggle with his ailment.

Related: AQAP changes leaders amid Southern forces' successes 

Batarfi is considered the first AQAP leader to die of natural causes as all his predecessors were killed in American strikes. Moreover, his death was unlikely the result of a previous injury. If it was the case, the AQAP statement would have referred to his death as “martyrdom” and not “death”.

Batarfi was a Saudi and was born in Riyadh. He served as the AQAP spokesperson. In 2018, the United States designated him as a “global terrorist”.

Batarfi took over the leadership during a difficult time for AQAP, the Yemen-based faction of the global terrorist network. Along with the internal disputes that hit the organization after its refusal to pledge allegiance to ISIS as well as the personal rifts between Batarfi and the dissident leader Abu Omar Al-Nahdi, the AQAP was beset by security and military problems after most of its important strongholds in the governorates of Abyan and Shabwa were besieged. The Southern forces surrounded these AQAP bastions for the first time in years and fiercely fought its operatives who were forced to leave. Its biggest setback was when the Southern forces drove out elements affiliated with the Islah Party (Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood) from areas under its control in the two governorates. These areas served as alternative strongholds for the AQAP. As a result of this adversity, Batarfi, for the first time, publicly urged the Yemeni tribes to support AQAP.

Batarfi was not the only brain ruling AQAP as there were other non-Yemeni leaders more experienced than him. During this period, the AQAP went through a state of stagnation. This means that it wasn’t basically a leadership problem despite the fact that Batarfi was less experienced than all the former leaders.

Batarfi was probably selected to succeed Al-Raymi due to his deep knowledge of the Sharia at a time when the organization needed a figure capable of addressing the internal problems, and not the operational side. Batarfi had a clear impact on some of the AQAP’s decisions. Although the organization’s leaders hadn’t initially adopted an outright stance toward what the ISIS called for, Batarfi took an anti-ISIS position from the very beginning, as can be seen in his messages from prison.1 Ultimately, Batarfi’s stance toward this issue was the one that dominated the AQAP. It seems that Saad Al-Awlaki is the choice of necessity due to the lack of other qualified Yemeni leaders to head the group. 

The Choice of Necessity 

In the obituary statement for Batarfi, the AQAP announced that the organization's Shura Council has selected Saad Bin Atef Al-Awlaki as the new Emir of the AQAP.

Despite his early engagement with AQAP, Saad Al-Awlaki was not among the prominent leaders who were qualified for media appearance during the organization’s golden years. However, he gained extraordinary military and security experience through his contacts with former AQAP leaders. 

It can also be said that Saad Al-Awlaki was keen to surround himself with an aura of ambiguity. However, he was forced to show up a little after most of the AQAP military, security and religious leaders were killed, according to informed sources who spoke to ‘South24 Center’. Between 2014-2015, the AQAP lost many of its leaders such as Nasser Al-Wuhayshi, Nasr Al-Ansi, Ibrahim Al-Rubaysh, Mamoun Hatem, Harith Al-Nazari, Qasim al-Raymi, and others.

The ambiguity surrounding Saad Al-Awlaki’s position can be noted when he said: “We do not focus currently on a remarkable media appearance. We focus on local advocacy.” Al-Awlaki believes that “the enemy sometimes seeks to make a media focus on a specific group or party to mobilize against it. They used this against us previously, but they failed”, according to him.

However, the AQAP believes that Saad Al-Awlaki is qualified for holding important positions. He was previously appointed as the “Emir” of Shabwa. He played an important role in securing the organization’s control over vast areas in the governorate in 2010 and 2011. He was entrusted with managing the city of Azzan in Shabwa which was declared by AQAP as an “Islamic province” at the time and he applied the Sharia rules there. Prior to that, Saad Al-Awlaki launched a mobilization drive among tribes in favor of AQAP and in return promised to provide the tribes shelter and protection. Since he hails from the Al-Saeed District of Shabwa, he turned some of its areas to serve as havens for AQAP elements. [1] Although the Southern forces reached these sanctuaries, for the first time in the history of the war against terrorism in Yemen, AQAP elements still carry out attacks against the Southern-affiliated ‘Shabwa Defense Forces’ every now and then. The Al-Saeed District is historically considered the most important hometown of AQAP leaders in Shabwa. Many AQAP leaders belong to the Yemeni district, including Anwar Al-Awlaki, Mohammed Amir Al-Kalwi, Saad Atef, and others. 

The new AQAP Emir realizes the importance of land control and the need to “cope with reality in different forms”. He exploits his affiliation with these areas in an attempt to impact some of the tribal people and also misguide the unemployed youth. In this respect, Al-Awlaki previously said: “We have roots in this ground. We have a big popular incubator that supports, endorses and supplies us. We aren’t strangers who can easily be eliminated or isolated from our tribal and popular surroundings.” 

The aforementioned words indicate that the strategy adopted by Saad Al-Awlaki is based on consolidating the relationship with the tribal society in the areas where AQAP elements are deployed. Although Batarfi tried to incite the local tribes against the Southern forces and the UAE during his tenure, he failed to do so. However, Al-Awlaki’s words, published in one of his books in 2019 and which haven’t been widely circulated, bet on his affiliation with the Southern areas, in one way or another. Thus, this would now constitute a possible challenge to the Southern forces.

The American website ‘SITE’, which specializes in terrorist groups’ affairs, said the last appearance of Saad Al-Awlaki was in a video released in February 2023 in which he called on Sunni tribesmen in Yemen “to resist overtures by the United Arab Emirates and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces to join in their fight against the AQAP”. 

Security and Military Background

Contrary to his predecessor Khaled Batarfi, Saad Al-Awlaki has a lot of security and military experience. It can be said that he largely resembles Qasim al-Raymi, who led the group from 2015 to 2020. The latter was not an inspiring leadership figure, but was an experienced military leader. He was behind the plans to control Abyan and Shabwa in 2011 and 2012 when he was the AQAP military commander. 

The American ‘Rewards for Justice Program’ previously offered $6 million in return for any information about Saad Al-Awlaki. The US Department of State said that Al-Awlaki has publicly called for launching attacks against the US and its allies.

Nevertheless, Saad Al-Awlaki’s military and security background doesn’t indicate any big change in the nature of AQAP’s activities over the coming period. This is because the AQAP Emir is no longer the one who controls the organization alone. The real control is no longer in the hands of its leader, but lies with senior leaders who share the management with him. Al-Awlaki was probably selected as the new AQAP leader due to his Yemeni nationality. This position isn’t given to figures outside the country in which the organization is based. Furthermore, Yemen has become the focus of Al-Qaeda's general leadership following the decline of its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Saif Al-Adel, who lives in Iran, has become the de facto leader of Al-Qaeda’s global organization after the killing of its previous leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in Kabul in August 2022 in a US drone strike. This means that Saad Al-Awlaki's tenure won’t be much different from Batarfi’s except for the nature of his social and tribal activities. 


- The available information about the new AQAP Leader is still scarce due to his rare appearances.

- The repeated recent appearance of Saad Al-Awlaki indicates that he was prepared for holding this position after the killing of most AQAP leaders within its first and second ranks. Al-Awlaki didn’t make any known media appearances during the early stages of AQAP. 

- It doesn’t seem that there will be any remarkable changes under Al-Awlaki’s leadership. If this happens, it won’t be related to his personal character. The AQAP leadership has largely become a nominal one after the killing of Qasim al-Raymi.

- Although the challenges that will confront the new leader may be less than those that faced his predecessor, due to internal disputes with Al-Nahdi and with ISIS, the mission to revive the organization will be a tough one in light of its current circumstances. 

- AQAP no longer has qualified leaders after the killing of Al-Raymi.

1. Batarfi was captured by Yemeni security forces in March 2011. In April 2015, AQAP elements staged a jailbreak at the Central Prison of al-Mukalla. Armed with machine guns, they managed to free around 300 inmates, including Batarfi. 

*Ibrahim Ali is the pseudonym of a researcher specializing in armed groups’ affairs. He has requested anonymity for personal reasons.

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic on March 24, 2024.


1- An exclusive source and another tribal one who spoke to ‘South24 Center’

YemenSouth YemenAQAPKhaled BatarfiSaad Al-AwlakiEmirTerrorismSouthern forcesUAELocal tribesAl-Qaeda