US strike kills 'dual-hatted' al Qaeda and Taliban commander in northern Afghanistan
A Coalition air weapons team killed an al Qaeda commander who also served as a Taliban leader in the volatile northern Afghan province of Kunduz.
Abu Baqir, who was described as "a dual-hatted Taliban sub-commander and al Qaeda group leader," was killed along with another Taliban operative after he and other members of his cell attacked the police station in the district of Alibad. Two other Taliban fighters were wounded in the airstrike, and were captured at a hospital while receiving treatment for their wounds.
ISAF first reported on the engagement that killed Baqir on Aug. 14. ISAF initially described Baqir as a sub-commander in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who was "known to conduct attacks on Afghan National Security Force checkpoints throughout the Gor Tapa area and to facilitate ammunition and mortars into the Chahar Darah District."
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is an al Qaeda affiliate that operates both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leader, Tahir Yuldashev, is thought to have been killed in a US Predator airstrike in South Waziristan in September 2009. Yuldashev sat on al Qaeda's top council, the Shura Majlis. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is active in the Afghan north and east.
Baqir is the second Taliban leader in the past month to have been described by ISAF as an al Qaeda commander. On July 20, ISAF described Qari Zia Rahman as "a Taliban leader and known member of Al Qaeda operating in Kunar Province."
According to today's statement from ISAF, Baqir was "reportedly housing four potential suicide bombers for upcoming attacks on the city of Kunduz."
Baqir was involved in the planning and execution of two recent suicide attacks in Kunduz, a US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. The first attack, on July 2, consisted of a suicide assault on the headquarters of a company working for USAID in Kunduz. Two foreign contractors, an Afghan soldier, and a policeman were killed in the attack; the company shut down its operations in the aftermath. The second suicide attack, on Aug. 5, killed seven Afghan policemen in the district of Imam Sahib.
Kunduz province is a known haven for al Qaeda and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda cells has been detected in the districts of Alibad, Chahar Darah, and Kunduz; or three of Kunduz's seven districts, according to an investigation by The Long War Journal.
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 Movement of Uzbekistan in 48 different districts in 17 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda maintains an extensive network in Afghanistan].
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, who claim that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives are active in Afghansitan.
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.
Background on the Taliban strongholds in the north
Over the past two years, the security situation in the northern provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan has deteriorated. The Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), the Haqqani Network, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan all have a presence in the two provinces and have been attacking Coalition and Afghan forces as well as NATO supply lines from Tajikistan.
The Taliban and allied terror groups maintain safe havens in Baghlan and Kunduz, and control large portions of the provinces. Of the seven districts in Kunduz province, only two are considered under government control; the rest of the districts - Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi, Ali Abab, Khan Abad, and Iman Sahib - are considered contested or under Taliban control, according to a map produced by Afghanistan's Interior Ministry in the spring of 2009. Two districts in neighboring Baghlan province - Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka - are under the control of the Taliban [see LWJ report, "Afghan forces and Taliban clash in Kunduz," and Threat Matrix report, "Afghanistan's wild-wild North"].
Kunduz and Baghlan fall under ISAF's Regional Command North, which is led by the Germans. The Germans have been criticized by the Afghan government and Coalition partners for failing to aid in securing the north. German troops are restricted from actively engaging in major combat operations and have largely confined their forces to base.
ISAF and Afghan security forces have been targeting the Taliban's top leaders for the two northern provinces; several have been detained or killed this year. The Pakistanis reportedly detained the Taliban's shadow governors for Kunduz and Baghlan in February. In April, the Afghan military claimed that the newly-named, replacement shadow governor for Kunduz was killed along with three aides.
Earlier this year, Baghlan was the scene of a local internecine battle between the Taliban and allied HIG. Seventy HIG fighters and 50 Taliban fighters were killed in fighting in the Baghlan-e-Markazi district after disagreements arose over collecting taxes. Scores of HIG fighters defected to the government after being defeated. There is no indication, however, that the taxation dispute between the two groups that spiraled into fighting has spread beyond the Baghlan-e-Markazi district.
But despite the Taliban's losses in the north, the group remains in firm control of several districts. The Taliban have launched an assassination campaign and have also been accused of releasing poisonous gases in girls' schools in Kunduz. Scores of Afghan schoolgirls have been hospitalized over the past several months due to the gas attacks.