A regional Al Qaeda boss was arrested in eastern Yemen in October in a raid that also saw his deputy killed, landing a major blow to the extremist group’s operations on the peninsula, according to a UN report.
The document said Khalid Batarfi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for about a year, had been detained and his deputy, Saad Atef Al Awlaqi, had been killed in an operation in Ghayda City, Al Mahrah Governorate.
The 23-page report — published this week by a UN Security Council team that monitors extremist groups — is the first official confirmation of Mr Batarfi’s arrest after unverified reports late last year.
It described “setbacks in late 2020” for the group after the “leadership losses” of Mr Batarfi and Mr Al Awlaqi and the “erosion of its ranks” due to rows and desertions, led by one of Mr Batarfi’s former lieutenants.
The group entered a period of “relative quiescence” after Mr Batarfi’s capture, but regrouped to launch a deadly strike on Yemen’s paramilitary Security Belt Forces in Abyan Governorate in December, said the monitors.
“The attack underscores the continued threat that the group poses and its offensive ambitions,” the report said.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Friday declined to elaborate on the details of the study, which does not disclose who detained Mr Batarfi or where he is being held.
Norway’s mission to the UN, which chairs the UN Security Council’s counterterror committee, did not immediately answer The National’s requests for comment.
Mina Al Lami, a BBC monitoring expert on armed extremists, said the group had not yet commented on its lost commanders.
The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks the online activity of Islamic extremist organisations, noted “unconfirmed reports” in October that Mr Batarfi had been arrested by Yemeni security forces and handed to Saudi Arabia.
The terrorist group announced it had appointed Mr 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.
Mr Batarfi, who was designated a global terrorist by the US State Department in 2018, has appeared in several of the group’s videos in recent years and appeared to have been Mr Al Rimi’s deputy and group spokesman, according to SITE.
Washington sees the group as the global extremist network’s deadliest regional outfit and the US has waged a long-running drone campaign against its leaders.
The extremist group has thrived in the chaos of the years of civil war which has pitted Iran-backed Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, who was driven from the capital Sanaa in 2014.
The spiralling conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, relief agencies say, with 80 per cent of Yemen’s population surviving on handouts in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has carried out operations against both Houthi and government forces as well as sporadic attacks abroad, including on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
The group claimed responsibility for the 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi Royal Air Force officer killed three American sailors. It was also behind the failed bomb plot on a Detroit flight on Christmas Day in 2009.
Analysts say the group’s strength has dwindled, though it still inspires “lone wolf” attacks abroad. Mr Batarfi’s arrest may be seen as an embarrassing setback for a group that extols the virtues of martyrdom.