Yemen File

The Yemen File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Yemen conflict and the Salafi-jihadi movement in Yemen.

AQAP Emir Rallies Group Under New Leadership Before Plotting External Attacks

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen: The new AQAP emir will focus on cohering the organization under his leadership before reemphasizing external attack planning.

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen: The Iranian regime is providing the al Houthi movement with weapons capable of shooting down US military aircraft.

 

The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Yemen

New al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Khaled Batarfi will likely strengthen AQAP by cohering the organization internally before planning external attacks. An AQAP religious official confirmed the death of former emir Qasim al Raymi, whom a US airstrike killed in January, and announced Batarfi as Raymi’s successor on February 23.[1] Batarfi’s past experience includes planning external operations for the group, potentially indicating that AQAP will continue its recent reinvigorated support for attacks outside of Yemen. Batarfi’s first statement since taking the position indicates that he is prioritizing cohering the group internally to strengthen it in the near term.

Batarfi’s strengths include his previous leadership experience in Yemen and his ties to senior al Qaeda leadership. Batarfi retains links to senior al Qaeda leadership attributed to his time fighting in Afghanistan in 1999. He also has relationships with mid-level commanders in multiple areas of Yemen from his past command roles in Hadramawt, Abyan, and al Bayda governorates. Batarfi spent time off the battlefield while imprisoned between 2011 and 2015 in Hadramawt governorate until AQAP released him after capturing the governorate capital al Mukalla. Batarfi rose through AQAP’s ranks rapidly thereafter from mid-level commander in Abyan to AQAP spokesman.

Batarfi will likely continue planning external operations given his previous leadership and experience in attack plotting. Batarfi took over external operations after the death of AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim al Asiri in 2017. The group’s external attack attempts have been limited since 2015, however. Batarfi planned the disrupted 2017 Jordan attack, according to the UN. The group may now be increasing its external operations activity. It claimed responsibility for the December 2019 shooting at a US naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, but the level of support for the attack beyond this rhetoric is unknown.[2]

AQAP’s attack rate may hold steady or decline in the coming months while Batarfi focuses on rallying the group under his leadership. Batarfi used his first message as emir to acknowledge the organization’s internal strife. The February 25 video acknowledged the organization’s internal spy problem and promised complete amnesty and anonymity to those who confess. [3] AQAP officials also stressed that spies compromise members’ safety, possibly alluding to Raymi’s death. Batarfi’s inaugural message may indicate a greater initial focus on counterespionage—differing from the first statements of former AQAP emirs Raymi and Nasser al Wahayshi, who spoke about plotting external attacks—but it also reflects a multiyear counterintelligence effort within AQAP.[4]

 

The al Houthi Movement in Yemen

The Iranian regime has increased the al Houthi movement’s offensive capabilities by introducing new weapons to Yemen’s battlefield, including missiles capable of downing US military helicopters. Iran has provided sophisticated weapons to the al Houthi movement throughout the conflict, including missile and drone components. The US Navy intercepted a dhow in the Arabian Sea carrying Iranian-manufactured weapons intended for the al Houthis in early February.

The seized weapons included type-358 antiaircraft missiles, which have been used to attempt to shoot down US drones over Yemen and are capable of downing US military helicopters. The US Navy seized three type-358 missiles in the Arabian Sea in November 2019. The seized weapons also included type-351 missiles, which are believed to have been used in the September 2019 Iran-based attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, and type-C802 missiles, which were used in an al Houthi attack on the USS Mason in the Red Sea in October 2016.

Iranian and Iranian proxy advisers continue to support developing the al Houthi movement’s military capabilities. The US attempted a strike on a senior Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander responsible for advising militants in the capital Sana’a in January. The Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government forces *claimed that airstrikes and clashes in northern and central Yemen last month *killed several Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah military leaders and experts.

The al Houthi movement rescinded a proposed tax to preserve its access to humanitarian aid. The al Houthi movement manipulates foreign humanitarian aid to al Houthi–held territories by blocking and extorting UN aid programs to gain control over external assistance. Al Houthi members rescinded a proposed 2 percent aid tax in mid-February after donors threatened to suspend aid. The Trump administration is pressuring the UN this month to halt its relief assistance to the al Houthis, citing corruption.

The al Houthi movement and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government are unprepared to strike a long-term political deal. The al Houthi movement and Hadi government agreed on February 16 to the first large-scale prisoner swap since 2015. The prisoner exchange is part of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, which also sought to implement a cease-fire, mutual force redeployment, and facilitate humanitarian aid movement in the coastal al Hudaydah governorate.

The prisoner swap will unlikely lead to lasting diplomatic progress, however, because neither side has demonstrated willingness to negotiate a political solution in recent months. Hadi government officials publicly *discussed *recapturing the al Houthi–held capital in November 2019. The al Houthi movement *launched a preemptive offensive to prevent a Hadi government assault in late January, advancing the front line north and east of Sana’a. The al Houthi militants seized al Hazm, the capital of northern Yemen’s al Jawf governorate on March 1, *marking the first time that Saudi-backed forces have lost a Yemeni governorate capital in over two years.

Hostilities have also continued between the al Houthi movement and the Saudi-led coalition following a diplomatic concession. The Saudi-led coalition *allowed the first UN medical flight to leave Sana’a in early February, marking the first civilian flight out of Yemen since 2015. The al Houthis resumed attacks on Saudi infrastructure on January 31, however, in a likely attempt to pressure the Saudi-led coalition to make further concessions and accept a cease-fire.

Saudi air defenses intercepted an al Houthi missile attack targeting Yanbu in eastern Saudi Arabia on February 21. The al Houthi movement and the coalition have also traded retaliatory *attacks in northern Yemen after the al Houthis *claimed to shoot down a coalition fighter jet in al Jawf governorate in mid-February.


[1] “AQAP Confirms Death of Leader Qassim al-Rimi, Announces Successor,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 23, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com

[2] “AQAP Claims Credit for Naval Air Station Pensacola, Leader Calls Lone Wolves to Act,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 2, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “In Latest Video on Deterring Espionage, AQAP Focuses on Psychological Torment and Family Disgrace,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 25, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Al-Malahem Foundation Publishes Full Wuhayshi Interview,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 7, 2009, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “New AQAP Leader Eulogizes Wuhayshi, Calls for Attacks on U.S. in Speech,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 9, 2015, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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