The poor financial situation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a matter of public knowledge, as are the challenges faced by its senior leadership in maintaining morale and some semblance of cohesive structure. In Yemen the situation for the group is particularly dire, with an inability to contest military pressure or even to pay its own fighters. Put simply, their weakening hand is being exploited by the wider ecosystem.

The poor situation the group finds itself in has been exacerbated by a number of events, most notably the recent death of Khalid Saeed Batarfi, who had served as the Emir of the group since January 2020. Rumors of ill health had been circulating since the very beginning of his appointment, and his premiership was defined by a general inability or unwillingness to address key failings within the group. There was significant speculation that the death of Batarfi had been covered up for a number of months, given the fact that whilst his death was formally announced in March 2024, the leader had not been seen in public for over a year.

A further blow to the group was dealt by news of the death of Khalid Zaydan, son of Iran-based al-Qaeda Emir Sayf al-Adl. The death of Zaydan was also reported in March 2024, as a result of complications sustained during a fire at his family home. The cause of the fire has not yet been established, although it is likely that it was due to dilapidated infrastructure rather than as a consequence of the recent uptick in Houthi bombings of AQAP locations in al-Bayda.

This is hardly the ending that Zaydan would have envisaged when he was first deployed from Iran to Yemen to assert control over AQAP. His influence had grown rapidly from July 2022 onwards, following the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri and his father’s ascension to the post of Emir to the whole of al-Qaeda. These strong family ties worked in the groups favor initially, serving as a key source of intra-affiliate coordination, and enabled AQAP as the Yemeni affiliate to act as an interlocutor between al-Shabaab in Somalia, Hurras al-Din in Syria, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This also provided Iran with a useful foothold in Yemen, and probably was a driving force behind the group’s growing alliance with the Houthis. Such an arrangement, whilst useful for projecting Iranian influence overseas, runs contrary to the established strategies of both sides given the divergent ideologies that they possess. Continued leaks highlighting the extent of this secret relationship have proven damaging for AQAP, the Houthis, and for Iran, forcing them to publicly refute the allegations in an attempt to stave off an internal crisis.

It is clear that the deaths of the two Khalids will have significant implications for Yemen’s future trajectory as a whole. For Batarfi, Saad bin Atef al-Awlaki has stepped up to replace the Emir, inheriting the poisoned chalice of a group fraught with challenges and problems. His mandate is likely to be internally focused, aiming to establish greater trust among the rank and file of the organization. With the death of Zaydan, al-Qaeda has lost a valuable interlocutor in Yemen, with wider implications for the intra-affiliate operating model that had been established in recent years.

The instability that follows this developments has three potential outcomes:

  1. The loss of remote influence through Zaydan leading to Iran seeking to insert proximal access into AQAP by means of advisors, intelligence sharing, and/or weapons proliferation.
  2. A more internally focused al-Awlaki seeing the benefit of further agreements with the Houthis, prolonging the ceasefire between both groups and enabling the targeting of shared adversaries.
  3. Without Zaydan’s influence and following al-Awlaki’s new appointment, AQAP forging a more discrete path separate from Iran or wider al-Qaeda which better serves the interests of its local Yemeni membership.

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