Analysis: Al Qaeda maintains an extensive network in Afghanistan

On May 21 there was a suicide attack in Paktia province in Afghanistan that was initially claimed by the Taliban, but was later traced back to al Qaeda. The facts surrounding that strike and others, as well as information gleaned from US military press releases, paint a picture of al Qaeda that contradicts recent statements by top US intelligence officials who estimated al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan as being limited to between 50 and 100 operatives.

“I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100 [al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan], maybe less,” Panetta said on ABC News This Week on June 27. “It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Explicit confirmation of al Qaeda’s recent activity in Afghanistan came in a propaganda video released by As Sahab, al Qaeda’s media arm, stating that the May 21 suicide assault against an Afghan border police outpost in Urgun in Paktia province was carried out by four al Qaeda operatives.

The video, titled “The Raid of the Two Sheikhs; Abu Hamza al Muhajir and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, may Allah have mercy on them,” shows the four al Qaeda operatives giving their martyrdom statements before carrying out the assault. The four al Qaeda operatives are identified as Luqman al Makki, from Mecca in Saudi Arabia; Na’imallah al Swati from the district of Swat in Pakistan; Mus’ab al Turki, from Turkey; and Musa al Afghani, from Afghanistan.

While the attack by the four al Qaeda operatives was a failure, as three of the suicide bombers were killed in a firefight with Afghan police and only one policeman was killed, the attack demonstrates that al Qaeda is still actively conducting operations inside Afghanistan.

Within the past eight months, Al Qaeda is known to have carried out several suicide attacks along the border. The most prominent attack was executed by Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al Balawi, a Jordanian who was also known as Abu Dujanah al Khurasani, on Dec. 30, 2009. The Jordanian suicide bomber killed seven CIA agents and security guards and a Jordanian intelligence official at Combat Outpost Chapman in Khost. COP Chapman was used to aid in the covert US Predator campaign that targets al Qaeda and Taliban operatives inside Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Other recent attacks that can be directly traced to al Qaeda include an attack in the spring by Abi Zaid al Makki (another Saudi) on a Afghan outpost in Khost, and a failed attack by Abu Dijana San’aani, a Yemeni who served as a bomb maker for al Qaeda, near Kabul on May 9.

Further demonstrating al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, over the past year Coalition and Afghan forces have killed numerous al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, as well as several other commanders who fought in Afghanistan but were based in Pakistan.

On May 25, Coalition and Afghan forces killed a “key al Qaeda leader” during a clash in the eastern province of Paktia. On Jan. 19, the Turkistan Islamic Party admitted that 15 of its members, including 13 Uighurs and two Turks, were killed during a Predator airstrike in Badghis province in northwestern Afghanistan. The group, which is closely allied to al Qaeda (Abdul Haq al Turkistani, the leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party, sits on al Qaeda’s top shura), issued a statement confirming their deaths. And on Oct. 6, 2009, three al Qaeda embedded military trainers (these are al Qaeda operatives sent to Taliban units to impart tactics and skills) were killed in Herat.

As recently as June 27, in a single incident a total of 15 al Qaeda operatives, “including eight Arabs, five Pakistanis and two Afghans,” were killed after an IED detonated prematurely in a compound in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan.

In an attempt to disrupt al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan, the US has also utilized targeted Predator strikes in Pakistan’s bordering tribal areas to kill several top al Qaeda military leaders who fight in Afghanistan. Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda’s top leader for Afghanistan, was killed in a strike in North Waziristan on May 21. Al Qaeda quickly replaced Yazid by naming Sheikh Fateh al Masri as the new commander af Afghanistan.

More recently, on June 10, two Arab al Qaeda military commanders and a Turkish foreign fighter were killed in North Waziristan. Sheikh Ihsanullah was an “Arab al Qaeda military commander”; Ibrahim was the commander of the Fursan-i-Mohammed Group. On June 19, an al Qaeda commander named Abu Ahmed and 11 members of the Islamic Jihad Union were killed in North Waziristan.

Al Qaeda’s extensive reach in Afghanistan is documented in the body of press releases issued in recent years by the International Security Assistance Force. Looking at press releases dating back to March 2007, The Long War Journal has been able to detect the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Islamic Jihad Union in 46 different districts in 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Al Qaeda operates in conjunction with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hizb-i-Islami Guldbuddin network throughout Afghanistan. Al Qaeda operatives often serve as embedded military trainers for Taliban field units and impart tactics and bomb-making skills to these forces. Al Qaeda often supports the Taliban by funding operations and providing weapons and other aid, according to classified military memos released by Wikileaks.

This picture is vastly different from the one painted by top Obama administration intelligence officials including CIA Director Leon Panetta and Nation Counterterrorism Center Director Michal Leiter.

Sources:

Panetta: 50-100 al-Qaeda remain in Afghanistan, The Washington Post

U.S. Counterterror Chief: We Need Debate on CIA Terror Targets, Newsweek

Three al Qaeda trainers killed in western Afghanistan, The Long War Journal

Are there ‘al Qaeda guys’ in Afghanistan?, Threat Matrix

Another ‘al Qaeda guy’ dies in Afghanistan, Threat Matrix

Yet another ‘al Qaeda guy’ killed in Afghanistan, Threat Matrix

More ‘al Qaeda guys’ killed in Afghanistan, Threat Matrix

Al Qaeda appoints new commander for Afghanistan, The Long War Journal

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

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24 Comments

  • KnightHawk says:

    “”I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100 [al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan], maybe less,” Panetta said on ABC News This Week on June 27. “It’s in that vicinity.””

    Found that hilariously disingenuous, even more so then Cheney’s deadenders comments, difference being I don’t think Panetta actually believes his own statement when it was given.

  • T Ruth says:

    They are housed, at least in part, in the AQ interests section of the Pakistani Embassy and consulates.

  • T Ruth says:

    Bill, thanks for bringing Panetta and Co. up to speed. I don’t know how you manage to track all this, but glad that somebody is!
    Thats probably one reason why Hamid Gul and others declare yours as The place to go. The site/sight that joins the dots that other sites/sights cannot see.

  • paul says:

    Alq seems to be an Egyptian/Saudi led organistion and any international jihadi claims to be a member.Its a Brand/franchise!

  • ed says:

    IT IS A QUESTION OF SEMATICS HE SHOULD HAVE SAID ” WERE LOOKING AT 50 TO 100 HIGH LEVEL AL QAEDA OPERATIVES IN AFGHANISTAN ”
    THE WAR IS AGAINST “AL QAEDA AFFILATED GROUPS ” NOT JUST AL QAEDA. THE ENEMY IS WORTH DEFEATING AND THEY CAN NOT BE MINIMIZED AWAY. IT IS WORTH THE BLOOD AND TREASURE WE HAVE INVESTED AROUND THE WORLD.
    A YEAR AGO WHEN WE ANNOUNCED THE SURGE AND PAKISTAN WAS FIGHTING HARD AGAINST THE AL QAEDA AFFILATED GROUPS THE ENEMY PANICKED AND STARTED TALKING PEACE.
    NOW THE ARE AT THE PEAK OF THE SURGE THE ENEMY WILL NOT TRY TO TAKE ON THE AMERICANS THEY WILL TRY TO HURT THE AFGHANS WHILE REMINDING THE AFGHANS THAT THE AMERICANS WILL BE LEAVING NEXT YEAR. PURE TERROR.
    THE AFGHANS WILL HAVE TO STEP UP AND DEFEND THEMSELVES AND WE HAVE STICK BY THEM. THE PAKISTANIS WILL HAVE TO REALIZE THERE ARE NO GOOD TALIBAN OR BAD TALIBAN THERE ARE ONLY AL QAEDA AFFILATED GROUPS AND THEIR GOALS ARE AGAINST PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN NOT JUST AGAINST THE AMERICANS.

  • SteveJ says:

    Roggio appears to prefer “source” data from places other than the U.S. military — which is where Paneta got his information from.
    Sorry to see that Roggio feels our military is so incompetent as to release such shoddy information to civilian authorities.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    SteveJ,
    I suspect you have a reading comprehension problem. The data on the number of AQ cells in Afghanistan is derived exclusively from US military source material.
    That sorta shoots down your entire argument, now doesn’t it?

  • T Ruth says:

    SteveJ before you start getting all emotional and airing your sorrow here, i suggest you read here more regularly and develop a finer sense of the Big Picture.
    Roggio is discharging a very important role in talking straight during a time of propaganda, hidden agendas, psywar, psyops, so on and so forth.
    I’d recommend to you to listen to the radio dialogue in which he recently participated and linked to his blog…
    http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2010/07/wikileaks_afghanistan_pakistan.php

  • Render says:

    lol…
    Given that Leon Panetta is Director of CIA, something tells me that he’s propably not using US military intelligence as his primary source. Panetta is, after all, in charge of his own extremely large intelligence agency, with its own extremely large budget, and a slightly different intelligence mandate from those of the US military’s various intelligence departments.
    SteveJ: That comment could not have been more absurdly amusingly wrong then if you had intended it to be.
    OR NOT
    TO BE,
    R

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Render is absolutely correct. The US military does not agree with the CIA assessment. Name me a military leader who has come out in support of the assessment.
    SteveJ, the CIA has gotten it wrong on AQ strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2002.
    So this isn’t a political issue either. The CIA said foolish things under the Bush administration and continue to do it under the Obama administration.
    Misappropriating Render’s signoff:
    SAME AS IT
    EVER WAS,
    Incidentally that song and video is quite appropriate when thinking about Pakistan:
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x12spb_talking-heads-once-in-a-lifetime_music
    Lyrics:
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x12spb_talking-heads-once-in-a-lifetime_music
    AFTER THE
    MONEY’S GONE
    (sorry I abused that, Render)

  • anan says:

    Agree with Render and Bill.
    NO SURRENDER NO RETREAT,
    [like you style Render.]

  • Zeissa says:

    Too quick to jump to conclusions SteveJ.
    PS. It’d be nice to have an OOB Mr Roggio and Neo… what with the Afghan army expanding at 120k a year,.

  • James says:

    I agree with Bill that if anyone would know the ACCURATE intel it would be the military more than the CIA.
    Hopefully, they will “grandfather” through attrition our military that have the knowledge AND hard-earned experience into the CIA until it is wholly or almost wholly former military personnel.
    I’ve emphasized this many times before. We need to turn this thing into a war of intel and at least gradually get out of the conventional warfare model.
    We need to out SMART the SOBS more than we need to out gun or out armor them.
    Hopefully, (with fingers crossed) this war will “evolve” into a agile hit and run/ambush force made up of wholly or at least mostly Special Ops forces.
    In addition, I’m at least a little bit dismayed as to why we haven’t come up with our own version of a roadside bomb or remotely controlled IED attack strategy.
    They would stand to lose a whole lot more than we already have with such an effective strategy since that bviously, the major way the terrorists get from point A to point B is by using SUV’s.
    And, hopefully we are now (or will be) making the maximum use of surreptitiously placed GPS tracking devices.
    Please exscuse me for playing “monday morning quarterback” (if that might be what anyone is thinking). Especially when considering that the “game” isn’t over yet.
    Have a winning attitude. As MacArthur so famously said: “There is no substitute for victory” we need to add “and there will be no excuse for defeat ! ! ! ”

  • jayant says:

    I would find it difficult to imagine even CIA would be so out of depths on what is going on. I am pretty sure they have reasonably good assessment of what is going on in the ground. I read something yesterday about biden stating pakistan has changed its way or like. not that biden doesn’t know the pakistani’s are actually adding to what they have been doing given that US now is trying to work out an exit.
    So i just think everyone out there – Leon Panetta, Michal Leiter. biden, obama and lot many others – knows what is true but are just putting out a lot of spin to cover themselves because the task of putting themselves to do what ought to be done is too huge, they neither have the conviction nor the courage or for that matter the ability to commit what it would take in terms of political, financial and military investment and maybe even lack the very conviction as to what could really be attained in the end of it all.
    In nutshell if you can do what needs to be done – you just go out and do it, and when you cannot, you do what little you could and spin a lot of yarn around hoping no one would notice what you are running away from. and desperately hope for any break though with which one can disengage oneself out of the whole mess!
    Of course the people get fooled, but then some times there aren’t many honorable choices, right!

  • Render says:

    Zeissa: I’m not sure its possible to do a true OOB on the ANA/ANP at the moment.
    The unit titles are there, but for the most part the units themselves are a hollow shell at best, at worst nothing more then the semi-private armies of semi-private warlords giving temporary lip service to a non-existent central government while they plunder and pillage as much as they can from wherever they’re located at the moment.
    Only a tiny handful of the “commando” kandaks (battalions) can be considered reliable, for the moment.
    ===
    Mr. Roggio, you may misappropriate at will. But I gotta tell ya, Talking Heads not really my style…
    B-52’S,
    R

  • kp says:

    @James: “why we haven’t come up with our own version of a roadside bomb or remotely controlled IED attack strategy”

    We have one: the Hellfires or SDBs or the newer Scorpion are our “remotely controlled IEDs” launched from drones. The limitation is not the number of IEDs you can detonate but the precise targeting. It also minimize the killing of locals that are not AQ or Taliban. IEDs require boots on the ground to place and command detonate the IEDs. That’s a big risk for something that can be done with a drone. There isn’t anything a IED can do that we can’t do from a drone.

    You don’t need to stick “GPS devices” on SUVs (how would you do that? And make sure you get the right vehicles with exposing your folks?). If you find the vehicle (at a known site from IMINT OR HUMINT or SIGINT) then you can follow it with a drone. That way you also see who is riding along and what they do at the stops. For a hit you can choose a place and time for the attack that doesn’t endangered others.

    CIA has also been using IR LED flashers to mark targets in Pakistan (and I presume some of the people dropping these have been killed as the Taliban has shown photos of these devices).

  • Bing says:

    I disagree with the contention that by default the military has better intelligence or capabilities than the CIA.
    For a long time, the CIA’s SAD were the only true special forces units operating in Afg. The military, especially the army had stopped training for true spec ops missions in favor of direct action shock troops. Now, we’re seeing some movement back towards the Vietnam era green beret style unconventional tactics.

  • Render says:

    Ummhmm…
    Bing – “I disagree with the contention that by default the military has better intelligence or capabilities than the CIA.”

  • Bing says:

    Render, I was refuting James comment from above: “I agree with Bill that if anyone would know the ACCURATE intel it would be the military more than the CIA.”
    If the recent leak is any indication, the raw intel coming into the military is hardly first rate.
    As for SOCOM community, I have talked to people who were in Vietnam and it is there opinion that the current training has shifted emphasis on brute force and strength over some of the other the skills needed for true special operation forces. This is just not my opinion, but of many others.
    But it is slowly changing back.

  • Render says:

    Bing – “Render, I was refuting James comment from above: “I agree with Bill that if anyone would know the ACCURATE intel it would be the military more than the CIA.”
    Render – Understood. And I was pointing out that the military has far more people on the ground in theater then Langley does and that this has been the case since at least very early in 2002. I also quickly granted that the huge disparity in the size of the raw data streams doesn’t necessarily translate to more accuracy, in either direction. (And I’ll note that SOCOM and SAD work so closely together and so often that they might just as well be considered the same).
    Bing – “If the recent leak is any indication, the raw intel coming into the military is hardly first rate.”

  • RobSmith says:

    I’m not that comfortable with the ISAF being thought of as a U.S. military source. Nor is it clear that their press releases lead to your conclusions in any event.
    This link says that the Defense Department had input in arriving at the estimate used by Panetta– an estimate that has actually been around for about 6 months. (Paragraph 2)
    http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/president-obamas-secret-100-al-qaeda-now-afghanistan/story?id=9227861

  • James says:

    Thank you kp for your response and at least clarifying some things for me.
    I think that the CIA has shown a dependency in the past on over relying on a single means of attack and acquiring intel (first “Club” Gitmo, and now these drones).
    You should never put all your eggs in one basket.
    Wars cannot be won “in the air.” They must be won “on the ground,” (with Vietnam being the most obvious example).
    Please don’t misunderstand me, drones are a good thing, but they are not going to “clinch” this thing for US. As a matter of fact, sooner or later (if it hasn’t happened already), you will get to the point of “diminishing returns” I predict by expecting a drone attack strategy to do too much.
    What I would suggest for our military and CIA is to develop a multi angle attack strategy or even an attack strategy based on triangulation (i.e., in the air [drones], on the ground with special ops; and maybe even “underground” with strategically placed IED’s).
    This gives you a “multi-angle” view in addition to (at least in concept) to making the enemy have to defend itself from multiple fronts.
    In addition, I strongly feel (especially in that particular region) that we need to forge an alliance with India in the war on terror.
    How we work with India could well be the deciding factor in our favor and India’s in the outcome of this thing.

  • Render says:

    So the Haqqani’s are chopped liver?
    ==
    Once again, for those who are new here, or perhaps should refresh their own memory by using the resources that can be found on this website…
    Al-Qaeda is mostly a command and training structure. The Taliban and their many factions, together with dozens of other allied Islamic terrorist groups, provide the bulk of al-Q’s manpower inside the AfPak theater.
    The Taliban does not recognize the Durand Line. There is no artificial or imaginary separation of any relevance between Taliban operating inside Afghanistan and Taliban operating inside Pakistan. Attempting to divide the Taliban from al-Qaeda is akin to trying to remove the USMC from the US Navy.
    In 2008 the TTP alone was estimated to have between 30-35,000 fighters operational along the Pak-Afghan border. The al-Q allied Haqqani Network is thought to have between 4,000 and 12,000 fighters of their own. Nobody seems to know just how big LeT is (only the ISI would know that), but the US State Department estimates several thousand just in Kashmir alone.
    There is a Taliban shadow government and an al-Q “military”

  • Bing says:

    A-Q is more of a branding term for most of these groups now, though their core leadership structure still exists. So, estimating A-Q members is almost pointless.
    The important point is that those who use the A-Q branding are the hardcore jihadists and in a way it helps us identify them.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis