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