Seven months before his death in a US special operations raid at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden instructed some of al Qaeda’s leaders to relocate to provinces in eastern Afghanistan to avoid the US drone campaign in North and South Waziristan.
Bin Laden’s instructions were given to his deputy, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, in a letter dated Oct. 21, 2010. The document is one of thousands seized during the raid in Abbottabad; only 17 have been released to the public.
In the letter, which covered a wide range of issues and noted extensive correspondence with other al Qaeda leaders and affiliates, bin Laden tells Atiyah that al Qaeda should relocate as many “brothers” as possible to the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Ghazni and Zabul to avoid the US drone campaign in North and South Waziristan.
“Regarding the brothers in Wasiristan in general, whoever can keep a low profile and take the necessary precautions, should stay in the area and those who cannot do so, their first option is to go to Nuristan in Kunar [sic], Ghazni or Zabul. I am leaning toward getting most of the brothers out of the area,” bin Laden said, according to a translation of the document by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Since the drone program began in 2004, the US has killed some of al Qaeda’s top leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas, including Atiyah in 2011. The campaign has focused on the small kill box in North and South Waziristan. There have been 290 strikes total since the program began in 2004; of those strikes, only 15 have taken place in areas outside of North and South Waziristan. Of the 290 strikes since 2004, 69% have hit targets in North Waziristan, and 26% have hit targets in South Waziristan. [See LWJ report,s Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2012, for more data on the strikes; Droning on, for a discussion of the strikes with C-SPAN; and Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2012.]
Bin Laden suggests that Kunar province is the best area for the “brothers” to relocate to because of its rugged terrain.
“Note: there is no comparison between the fortification of Kunar and Zabul and Ghazni. Kunar is more fortified due to its rougher terrain and the many mountains, rivers, and trees and it can accommodate hundreds of the brothers without being spotted by the enemy. This will defend the brothers from the aircrafts, but will not defend them from the traitors,” bin Laden said.
It is unclear to what extent bin Laden’s directive was followed, as the few other documents that have been publicly released did not discuss the possible relocation of al Qaeda operatives.
Al Qaeda is known to have a presence in Kunar, Nuristan, Ghazni, and Zabul, and members of the terror group have been killed, captured, or targeted by Coalition and Afghan special operations forces in these four provinces after bin Laden issued his directive.
During a raid in Ghazni on June 23, 2011, Coalition and Afghan special operations forces captured five al Qaeda operatives, including a “senior al Qaeda facilitator.” On May 8, 2011, during a special operations raid in Zabul, Coalition and Afghan forces killed 10 al Qaeda fighters, including one from Saudi Arabia and one from Morocco, and captured a “Germany-based Moroccan al Qaeda foreign fighter facilitator.” Security forces also “found passports and identification cards from France, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia amongst ten insurgents killed during the operation.” On May 3, 2011, Afghan troops killed and wounded more than 25 al Qaeda fighters in the Barg-e-Matal district in Nuristan. And on April 14, 2011, a Coalition airstrike in Kunar killed several al Qaeda leaders and fighters, including Waqas, a Pakistani commander, and Abu Hafs al Najdi, a wanted Saudi emir.
Kunar and Nuristan have remained al Qaeda strongholds
For years, the rugged, remote Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan have served as sanctuaries for al Qaeda and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda cells has been detected in the districts of Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Dangam, Asmar, Asadabad, Shigal, and Marawana; or eight of Kunar’s 15 districts, according to press releases issued by the International Security Assistance Force that have been compiled by The Long War Journal. Additionally, Afghan security officials have noted the presence of al Qaeda and allied foreign fighters in neighboring Nuristan.
Despite the known presence of al Qaeda camps in these provinces, US troops have abandoned several combat outposts in Kunar and Nuristan after major attacks on remote bases. US Army commanders said that the outposts were closed or turned over to Afghan forces as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy to secure population centers. The Taliban has gained control of several districts in Kunar and Nuristan since US forces withdrew from those bases.
But as the US military began drawing down its forces in Kunar and Nuristan in late 2009, it acknowledged that al Qaeda camps were in operation in Kunar. ISAF noted these camps and bases when it announced the death of an al Qaeda leader during a raid on a base in late 2009, as well as in a press release announcing the deaths of two senior al Qaeda operatives in 2010. On Dec. 1, 2009, ISAF announced that Qari Masiullah, the al Qaeda chief of security for Kunar province, was killed during an operation in Kunar. Masiullah ran a training camp that taught insurgents how to use and emplace IEDs that were used in attacks on Afghan civilians and Afghan and Coalition forces throughout the provinces of Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman.
On Oct. 11, 2009, US forces targeted an al Qaeda base in the mountains in Pech. The raid targeted an unnamed al Qaeda commander known to use a mountainside base near the village of Tantil to conduct attacks in the Pech Valley. The al Qaeda leader, who was not named, and his cadre are also known to facilitate the movement of “foreign fighters” from Pakistan into Afghanistan. ISAF uses the term ‘foreign fighters’ to describe operatives of al Qaeda and allied terror groups from outside Afghanistan.
In September 2010, ISAF identified another al Qaeda camp in Kunar, when US aircraft bombed a compound in the Korengal Valley. Among those killed in the strike was a senior al Qaeda commander and two operatives. Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi, a Saudi, was a senior al Qaeda commander who coordinated the attacks of a group of Arab fighters in Kunar and Nuristan provinces and also maintained extensive contacts with al Qaeda facilitators throughout the Middle East. The other two operatives who were also killed in the strike are Abu Atta al Kuwaiti, an explosives expert; and Sa’ad Mohammad al Shahri, a longtime jihadist and the son of a retired Saudi colonel.
Special operations teams have been hunting top al Qaeda leaders and its network in Kunar and Nuristan for years. In the summer of 2010, ISAF announced it was hunting Qari Zia Rahman, who serves as the Taliban’s top regional commander in the northeast and as a senior military leader in al Qaeda. He operates in Kunar and Nuristan, as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand. In 2010, Rahman and his network were the targets of three large conventional operations and multiple special operations raids.