Coalition and Afghan special operations forces killed another al Qaeda leader in the remote, Taliban-controlled province of Kunar during a raid last week.
The International Security Assistance Force announced on Dec. 8 that an “insurgent leader” named Numan was killed along with two other fighters during an operation on Dec. 4 in the Nari district of Kunar province. The initial ISAF press release, which did not explicitly identify Numan as a member of al Qaeda, provided clues as to his affiliation.
“Numan facilitated the movement of weapons and money in the province and provided direct support to senior insurgent leaders in Kunar,” the ISAF press release stated.
In a response to an inquiry by The Long War Journal, ISAF confirmed that “Numan had an affiliation with al Qaeda.” ISAF could not confirm if Numan was an Afghan citizen or from another country. The identities of the two other “insurgents” killed with Numan were not disclosed by ISAF.
Numan was the second al Qaeda commander killed in Kunar on Dec. 4. Following a separate raid on that same day, ISAF announced that Mohammed Yar Gul, a leader who was involved in suicide attacks, was killed in the Watahpur district in Kunar province. ISAF did not initially identify Gul as an al Qaeda leader, but later confirmed his affiliation with the terror group in a response to an inquiry by The Long War Journal.
The deaths of Numan and Gul were the first reported killings of insurgents with direct ties to al Qaeda in over two months in Afghanistan. The last known raid targeting an al Qaeda-linked insurgent occurred on Sept. 28, when an “al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader” was killed during an airstrike. That raid was also conducted in Kunar, a hotbed for al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan.
Kunar is a known al Qaeda haven
For years, the rugged, remote Afghan province of Kunar has served as a sanctuary for al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba cells has been detected in the districts of Asmar, Asadabad, Dangam, Marawana, Nari, Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Shigal, and Watahpur; or 10 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.
So far this year, 13 al Qaeda operatives or insurgents with ties to the group have been targeted in Kunar province, including eight in the Watahpur district alone, according to a study by The Long War Journal. In 2011, only three raids were reported to have been conducted against al Qaeda in Kunar province; when compared to this year’s raids, a disturbing increase in al Qaeda activity in the province is evident. And neighboring Nuristan province has seen two reported operations targeting al Qaeda in 2012, whereas there were none last year.
Al Qaeda is known to run training camps and maintain bases in Kunar, and uses the province to direct operations in the Afghan east. ISAF has targeted several bases and camps in Kunar over the years [see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander, for more details].
Al Qaeda remains entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan despite the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. A document seized at bin Laden’s compound suggested that the actual number of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much higher than the numbers mentioned in official estimates provided by the Obama administration over the past three years, which have remained static at 300-400 members in Pakistan and 50-100 in Afghanistan. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan, and Bin Laden docs hint at large al Qaeda presence in Pakistan.]
A classified US military assessment based on prisoner interrogations that was leaked to The New York Times in February said that al Qaeda maintains “a small haven” in Kunar and Nuristan.
“Northeastern Afghanistan has become a small haven for al Qaeda. Several al Qaeda commanders, including the Al Qaeda emir for Kunar and Nuristan, Farouq al Qahtani, now live and operate in Afghanistan, with permission from the Taliban, but with the direct support of TTP [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] elements,” the assessment stated.
That same assessment identified al Qaeda’s leader in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province as Farouq al Qahtani. US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that Qahtani is a Saudi citizen. Several Saudi al Qaeda members have held top leadership positions in the province [see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader, facilitator killed in airstrike in Kunar].
Another senior al Qaeda leader known to operate in Kunar is Azzam Abdullah Zureik Al Maulid Al Subhi, a Saudi who is better known as Mansur al Harbi. He was added by the State Department to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list on Aug. 7. The Saudi Interior Ministry has said that al Harbi works “at a training camp in Afghanistan and is tied to numerous senior al Qaeda leaders including Abdel Aziz Migrin and Saif al Adel.” Migrin headed al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia and led attacks in the kingdom before he was killed in a firefight with Saudi security forces in June 2004. Saif al Adel is al Qaeda’s second in command and top military strategist, and served as the interim leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011.
Additionally, Qari Zia Rahman, a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban leader, operates in Kunar province as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Mohmand and Bajaur. ISAF forces have been hunting Qari Zia for years but have failed to capture or kill him.