The International Security Assistance Force announced today that “several” insurgents were killed during an Afghan and Coalition force raid in Taliban-infested Kunar province. Following an inquiry by The Long War Journal, ISAF confirmed that the insurgents killed in the raid are “believed to be associated with the Taliban, but also have links to al Qaeda.”
According to the ISAF report, security forces “observed the armed individuals engaged in hostile activity and engaged them” while conducting a joint security operation in Ghazibad district. The nationality of the insurgents has not been disclosed.
This marks the first operation against al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Afghanistan in almost a month. The last reported operations occurred on Dec. 4, when three separate raids targeted insurgent leaders with ties to al Qaeda and its affiliates in the country [see LWJ reports: ISAF launches 2 raids targeting al Qaeda-linked commanders, and ISAF kills another al Qaeda commander in Kunar raid].
When asked if any raids against al Qaeda-linked insurgents or foreign fighters were conducted after the Dec. 4 raids and not reported, ISAF told The Long War Journal that they “found no operational reporting” of “any known fighters or members of al Qaeda targeted since the last reported operation.”
Al Qaeda remains resilient in Afghanistan
Despite large gaps in reported raids targeting the group in the latter half of 2012, it is clear that al Qaeda and its affiliates remain resilient in the country. Based on a study by The Long War Journal, today’s raid marks the 67th operation this year targeting al Qaeda-linked fighters in Afghanistan. The year did show a decrease in raids targeting the group compared to previous two years; 92 operations were conducted in 2011, and 79 in 2010. But this year’s operational tempo against al Qaeda-linked fighters in Afghanistan represents an increase compared to the years prior to the Obama administration’s Afghan surge; between 2007 and 2009, only 77 such raids were conducted, according to ISAF press releases compiled by The Long War Journal.
While operations targeting al Qaeda and its affiliates occurred across the country in 2012, two provinces stand out as major strongholds.
Kunar province, on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, has long functioned as a safe haven for al Qaeda and allied terror groups, despite the continued presence of Afghan and Coalition troops. In 2012, there were 16 operations in the province, including an airstrike in June that killed two Pakistani leaders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Another operation in May killed al Qaeda’s second in command in Afghanistan. By comparison, in 2011 only three operations were conducted in the province against al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
And in Afghanistan’s north, Kunduz province has remained a hotbed of activity for the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This year, 16 raids were conducted against IMU fighters in the province; in 2011, there were 18 such raids.
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, Ghazibad, Marawana, Nari, Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Shigal, and Watahpur; or 11 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.
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 neighboring 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.
US intelligence officials have 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.