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How many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan again?


The banner for al Qaeda's propaganda tape, titled "Winds of Paradise - Part 5, Eulogizing 5 'Martyrs,'" from the Ansar forum.

Today's announcement by ISAF of the killing of al Qaeda "associate" Sabar Lal Melma in Nangarhar is interesting not only because of his status as a former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility [see Thomas Joscelyn's excellent writeup here], but also because of this interesting admission buried at the end of the portion of the press release dealing with his death:

Coalition security forces have captured or killed more than 40 al Qaeda insurgents in eastern Afghanistan this year.

This is interesting because US officials, including former ISAF commander and soon-to-be CIA chief General David Petraeus, have, for the past year plus, insisted that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives remain in Afghanistan.

At both The Long War Journal and Threat Matrix, we've contested this estimate multiple times. See the following posts for a few examples:

In April of this year, the US military claimed that 25 al Qaeda operatives were killed throughout all of Afghanistan during a one-month period. Today, we're told that 40 al Qaeda operatives were killed in the east alone.

Keep in mind that if 40 al Qaeda operatives have been killed/captured this year in just the east, and 25 al Qaeda operatives were killed/captured throughout Afghanistan during a one-month period earlier this year, then the total number is somewhat higher than 40. For instance, we know that an al Qaeda leader and associate of Osama bin Laden, and two of his aides were captured in Balkh province in June, and 10 al Qaeda fighters were killed and several more were captured in Ghazni in the southeast in May. But we'll use the number of 40 regardless, to be generous.

Back in April, The Long War Journal requested information from ISAF on the nature and strength of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, how the US military views the threat of al Qaeda and its affiliate groups, and if it considers groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan a threat to US national security. The answers we were given were vague (and the answers largely focused on the Taliban, not al Qaeda). So, we'll repeat these general questions that were posed in How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan? from earlier this year. The questions have been slightly modified to account for the new data:

  • Why has the estimate of al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan remained static for more a year?
  • What is the intelligence community's present estimate of al Qaeda strength in Afghanistan? Can the estimate be revised downward to 10-60 al Qaeda operatives currently in Afghanistan given the results of operations since the beginning of the year?
  • Does US intel believe that most of the 50-100 (or is it now 10-60?) al Qaeda operatives are clustered in the east?
  • What is the intelligence community and the military's definition of al Qaeda? Does this only include operatives who have personally sworn bayat (allegiance) to Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri?

We don't expect an answer. But we do know, based on information released by the US military on operations against al Qaeda, that the static estimate of 50 to 100 operatives in country doesn't pass the basic logic test.

READER COMMENTS: "How many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan again?"

Posted by Graham at September 4, 2011 12:32 AM ET:

I would imagine that the number fluctuates as operatives are killed and new ones arrive to replace them.

Posted by Bill Roggio at September 4, 2011 12:35 AM ET:

Graham, you would think the estimate would fluctuate, but it hasn't we've heard the same thing for more than a year, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Posted by Matt at September 4, 2011 4:19 AM ET:

My question is why would the US military be purposefully hiding the real number of AQ operatives? Or could it be that the US military really doesn't know how many AQ there really are in Afghanistan? Thanks Bill, for asking the US military what they consider/definition of an AQ operative in Afghanistan is.

Posted by Max at September 4, 2011 8:43 AM ET:

Of course we know what it means, Bill! Al-qaeda must have moved somewhere else! Generals are never wrong, you know that (with all due respect to a great general, Dave Petraeus).

Posted by Joe at September 4, 2011 9:00 AM ET:

Very interesting article, thanks.

What caught my eye right away was the banner for as-Sahab's video.

There was a banner similar to this one perhaps two years ago at most, and it featured far more al-Qaeda operatives who were not from Pakistan/Afghanistan.

Perhaps the focus now for al Qaeda is to try and hide their influence as much as possible in the Af-Pak region and thus do what Islamic State of Iraq/Al Qaeda in Iraq did by developing and morphing into an almost completely indigenous insurgent group.

There could be up to 500 average al Qaeda members, fighters in Af-Pak at any given time, but they might not even advertise it to their local Pashto comrades in arms for fear of an intel leak that results in "the night soldiers" (Specops) paying a visit.

Posted by My2Cents at September 4, 2011 8:38 PM ET:

Could hinges on the definition of the word 'operative', i.e. most al-Qaeda casualties may be classified as something else, like ‘foot soldiers’, only the leaders are considered operatives. So you have 40 or so al-Qaeda ‘operatives’ and another 400 or so al-Qaeda non-‘operatives’. And most of the replacement leaders would not be in Afghanistan, but across the border in Pakistan organizing and training new recruits.

So every time they kill an ‘operative’ the count in Afghanistan goes down for a week or 2 until his replacement arrives and they are back up to 40 operatives. Unless we can do something about the supply in Pakistan it will not change.

Posted by Graham at September 4, 2011 10:18 PM ET:

What motivation could they have for downplaying AQ's presence in AfPak?

Posted by Villiger at September 5, 2011 12:18 AM ET:

Graham, to allow for a quick declaration of victory and exit should the political need arise at any time.

Thats one possibility, the rest remains a mystery to me.

At any rate, AQ and the Taliban are joined at the hip.

Posted by Jain at September 5, 2011 4:39 AM ET:

I think especially the last question is relevant. We need a clear definition of what al Qaeda and 'al Qaeda operative' is.

Is any Arab who volunteers to fight in Afghanistan a member of al Qaeda? Are we really talking about an 'organization' with a centralized command and finance structure, or rather a decentralized phenomena of extremism/transnational Islamic volunteers?

Killing al Qaeda operatives is roughly the -casus belli- for US troops in Afghanistan. If they wouldn't kill a couple of dozen every now and than, the entire intervention would loose its legitimacy.

Conversely, although the US 'is not running for the exit', it is about to withdraw 80% of its troops in the next 2 years. That's a policy comfortable with a message that there is no longer a 'significant presence' of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

So how many al Qaeda operatives are there in Afghanistan?

Well.... let's say it depends...

Posted by Keith at September 5, 2011 12:58 PM ET:

Does anybody at LWJ (or anywhere else) have an al Qaeda leadership tree along with each position's attrition?

Obviously this would involve some guesswork but to have some sort of tree that has who is currently in charge of which departments (?) and who-- after being killed or captured--they may have replaced would be great.

This would make it much easier to get a grasp of how well we're doing in disassembling al Queda.

Posted by ArneFufkin at September 5, 2011 2:28 PM ET:

@villiger: to allow for a quick declaration of victory and exit should the political need arise at any time.
That's the most plausible explanation to me.

Posted by Charu at September 5, 2011 6:03 PM ET:

Agree with Villiger. It is a political feint to give cover for a retreat. What is shameful is that our military, including Gen. Petraeus, have gone with this lie.

Posted by Baobo at September 6, 2011 2:29 AM ET:

Since the basic problem is economic, cultural, and religious, one shouldn't worry about absolute numbers. It's the rate at which enemies are created or removed that matters primarily, and that number can only be estimated over many years.

Of course having accurate numbers may be important operationally and politically... but since that isn't possible..... Now what?

Posted by rk at September 6, 2011 6:51 PM ET:

@Keith I know this isn't exactly what you're looking for, but I think I got most of the big names below. My focus was on AQ/AQAP historic & operational linkages, but I tried to lay out AQ hierarchy as well.


Posted by villiger at September 6, 2011 11:29 PM ET:

rk, Thanks very much for that link and for your work. That really is a very helpful graphic--i didn't think that Keith was going to get an answer to his question, and not that quickly.

I recommend it to all readers here to take a look.

It is quite reassuring to see a good number of those mugshots at AQC neatly framed, be it red or black.

Bill, it would also be helpful if you could keep that somehow in a window here at LWJ for easy access, of course with due credit to you, Rick.
Keith, thank you for asking the question!

Posted by Neonmeat at September 7, 2011 10:53 AM ET:

You have to say the picture is pretty funny, the guy with the rocket launcher looks like he's about to make a few new matyrs from the three guys at the top, and the bloke with the heavy machine gun seems to be holding the business end to his mates head!

Posted by Sean at September 8, 2011 9:23 PM ET:

It is a ridiculous thing to try to count the number of AQs in Afghanistan. First, how do they define if one is an AQ member and not the member of some other group, or even just a sympathizer?
I would bet that the supposed AQ guys ISAF is claiming could also be categorized as a handful of other insurgent groups, but for the moment the AQ label sticks because that's what gets notoriety and/or money for the moment. In my opinion it is all ridiculous banter and nobody on the ground even thinks about how many AQ are in Afghanistan.

Posted by Render at September 10, 2011 4:55 AM ET:

Keith - Yes, but not for publication.


Sean - ISAF likes to call them IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) members, ignoring that IMU is part of al-Q and has been since at least 1998. If you count the number of IMU mentions in ISAF press releases, the numbers of al-Q in Afghanistan skyrocket.

...and are probably still short.


Posted by Ben Moore at September 12, 2011 8:43 AM ET:

Great work Bill, I wanted to let you know I linked to this article from a news letter I receive from defense industry daily... nice