The leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen appears to be still at large despite a United Nations report which claimed he had been under arrest for months, the SITE Intelligence Group and two local tribal leaders said Thursday after he was seen in a video released by the jihadist group.
Khalid Batarfi, who has been the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for about a year, talks about the storming of the US Congress last month in the video, which came out Wednesday.
The video, which opens with footage of the January 6 assault by Donald Trump supporters, belies reports that Batarfi was under arrest, said SITE, which monitors extremist organisations.
In the 20-minute video titled “America and the Painful Seizure”, Batarfi says “storming the Congress is only the tip of the iceberg of what will come to them, God willing”.
A report filed to the UN Security Council last week claimed Batarfi was arrested and his deputy, Saad Atef al-Awlaqi, killed during an “operation in Ghayda City, Al-Mahrah governorate, in October”.
Two local tribal leaders in the Al-Bayda governorate in central Yemen, where AQAP is active, told AFP there was a high probability the person arrested was not Batarfi but another member of the jihadist group.
“Most probably, he wasn’t arrested, and the one who was arrested was another senior leader in the group,” one of the tribal leaders said.
The UN report, which summarised global potential jihadist threats, did not disclose his whereabouts or reveal any further details of the October operation.
AQAP revealed it had appointed Batarfi, believed to be in his early 40s, as its leader in February 2020 following the death of his predecessor Qassim al-Rimi in a US air strike in Yemen.
Batarfi, who was designated a global terrorist by the US State Department in 2018, has appeared in numerous AQAP videos over recent years, according to SITE, and appeared to have been Rimi’s deputy and group spokesman.
Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide jihadist network’s most dangerous branch, and has waged a long-running drone war against the leaders of the group.
AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.
The Sunni extremist group thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
AQAP has carried out operations against both the Huthis and government forces as well as sporadic attacks abroad, including on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
Analysts say its abilities on the ground have dwindled, although it still inspires attacks carried out by “lone wolf” jihadists or former operatives.
Yemen has been wracked by conflict since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened after the Huthis seized control of the capital Sanaa.