New leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen threatens to be a 'nightmare for Americans'
Saudi-national Khaled bin Omar Batarfi pledged allegiance to Alqaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on Friday, in his first appearance since being appointed leader following the death of his predecessor Qassim Al-Rimi.
The warning came in a video recorded by AQAP’s media arm, Al-Malahem Foundation.
Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide network's most dangerous branch.
The extremist group thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen's Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebels.
In late February, the group confirmed the death of its leader Al-Rimi and appointed Batarfi as the successor, weeks after the US said it had "eliminated" the militant chief in a strike in Yemen, according to media reports.
The announcement came in an audio speech delivered by AQAP religious official Hamid bin Hamoud Al-Tamimi, said SITE intelligence monitoring group.
"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.
Batarfi had appeared in a number of AQAP videos over the past several years and appeared to have been Rimi's deputy and group spokesman.
This comes as president Donald Trump announced Rimi's death earlier this month, saying he had been killed in a US "counter-terrorism operation in Yemen".
That announcement came shortly after AQAP claimed responsibility for the 6 December mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.
"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 of the strike.
"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."
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 Houthis 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 2014 that exacerbated when a Saudi-led coalition intervened to reinstate the internationally-recognised government after Houthi rebels seized control of the capital.
The conflict has since killed more than 100,000 people, relief agencies say, and triggered what the United Nations has described as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis" with millions displaced and in need of aid.
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