Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Sunday confirmed the death of its leader Qassim al-Rimi and appointed a successor, weeks after the US said it had “eliminated” the Islamist militant chief, SITE Intelligence group said.
The announcement came in an audio speech delivered by AQAP religious official Hamid bin Hamoud al-Tamimi, said the group which monitors jihadist networks worldwide.
“In his speech, Tamimi spoke at length about Rimi and his jihadi journey, and stated that Khalid bin Umar Batarfi is the new leader of AQAP,” it said.
SITE said Batarfi has appeared in many AQAP videos over the past several years and appeared to have been Rimi’s deputy and group spokesman.
President Donald Trump announced Rimi’s death earlier this month, saying he had been killed in a US “counterterrorism operation in Yemen”.
That announcement came shortly after AQAP claimed responsibility for the December 6 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.
Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide jihadist network’s most dangerous branch.
The Sunni extremist group thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Shiite Huthi rebels.
“Under Rimi, AQAP committed unconscionable violence against civilians in Yemen and sought to conduct and inspire numerous attacks against the United States and our forces,” Trump said at the time.
“His death further degrades AQAP and the global Al-Qaeda movement, and it brings us closer to eliminating the threats these groups pose to our national security.”
– Weakest in a decade –
Trump did not give any details about the circumstances or the timing of the operation, but the US has waged a long-running drone war against the leaders of the Yemen-based AQAP.
Rimi had himself succeeded Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in June 2015.
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.
But analysts say its abilities on the ground have dwindled, although it still inspires attacks carried out by “lone wolf” jihadists or former operatives.
After the years of lethal drone strikes, it is also running out of leadership material with name recognition or charisma, they said.
“AQAP is at its weakest point in a decade, at least in terms of its identity as a coherent group with a primarily religious ideology,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at the University of Oxford.
“Its dream of establishing an Islamic state in Yemen lies in tatters,” she said.
“At its peak in 2015-16, it had taken advantage of the country’s descent into war to recruit broadly, fill its coffers, and establish a proto-state…
“Today, however, the AQAP core struggles to hold even a small patch of territory,” she said in a study published by the Washington Institute.
Kendall said Batarfi and other leadership contenders all had “multi-million-dollar bounties on their heads, leaving them with minimal room to manoeuvre, let alone revive AQAP to its heyday”.
Yemen has been wracked by conflict since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened after the Iran-backed Huthis seized control of the capital Sanaa.
The conflict has since killed tens of thousands of people, relief agencies say, and triggered what the United Nations terms the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with millions displaced and in need of aid.