ISAF hunts senior al Qaeda leader in Kunar

Coalition aircraft targeted a senior al Qaeda commander with links throughout the Middle East during an airstrike last night in the northeastern province of Kunar.

ISAF intelligence assets “tracked the commander to a remote compound” in the Pech district in Kunar, the International Security Assistance force stated in a press release. Coalition aircraft then launched “a precision air strike on the targeted compound, which was subsequently destroyed.”

The al Qaeda commander, who was not named, “coordinates the attacks of a group of Arab fighters in Kunar and Nuristan province,” ISAF stated.

“The Al Qaeda facilitators and extremists he works with throughout the Middle East directly threaten the safety and security of Afghan government officials and civilians,” ISAF continued. “He routinely facilitates the travel of foreign fighters into the region.”

ISAF would not disclose the name of the commander and will only do so if he is confirmed killed. “If/when we confirm the target’s identity, we will release the name,” an ISAF spokesman told The Long War Journal. ISAF did say his brother was killed in an airstrike in Kunar in March 2009; there no reports of al Qaeda operatives being killed during that timeframe, however.

Although ISAF did not disclose the name of the leader, two likely candidates are Qari Zia Rahman, a top regional leader, and Abu Ikhlas al Masri, an Egyptian who settled in the region [more on Qari Zia and al Masri below].

Kunar province is a known sanctuary 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 an investigation by The Long War Journal.

Counterterrorism operations intensify in Kunar

Since June, US and Afghan forces have stepped up operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Kunar after withdrawing forces from outposts in remote districts in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan late last year as part of the US’ population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. The Taliban and al Qaeda have taken advantage of these new safe havens to strike at neighboring districts and provinces.

Within the past two months, Afghan and US forces have primarily conducted counterterrorism operations in Kunar, with sweeps, raids, and airstrikes making up the effort against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other terror groups entrenched in the northeast.

On Sept. 18, an ISAF airstrike killed Haji Mohammad, who was the Taliban’s shadow governor for the district of Shigal and an ally of al Qaeda. At the end of August, US and Afghan forces killed 19 Taliban fighters during an air assault in Pech. On Aug. 26, US troops killed four Taliban fighters in an airstrike in the Pech district.

And on Aug. 19, special operations forces killed three members of the Taliban subgroup Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran during a raid in the village of Shamun in Pech. Sayed Shah, a wanted commander in Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran, was among those killed.

ISAF targets al Qaeda’s top leader in the region

In late July and early August, ISAF announced that it was hunting Qari Zia Rahman, who is the Taliban’s top regional commander as well as a senior military leader in al Qaeda. He operates in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province in Afghanistan, and he also operates across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agency of Bajaur.

Qari Zia is closely allied with Pakistani Taliban leader Faqir Mohammed as well as with Osama bin Laden. Qari Zia’s fighters are from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and various Arab nations. Earlier this year, the Pakistani government claimed they killed Qari Zia in an airstrike, but he later spoke to the media and mocked Pakistan’s interior minister for wrongly reporting his death.

The US has targeted Qari Zai in three raids over the past summer. On June 29, the US launched a battalion-sized operation in Kunar’s Marawara district. More than 150 Taliban fighters were reported killed in the operation. On July 20, US and Afghan forces launched another battalion-sized operation in Marawara to flush out Qari Zia. And on Aug. 2, combined forces conducted a raid, again in Marawara, that targeted the al Qaeda leader.

The top al Qaeda commander in Kunar province is Abu Ikhlas al Masri, an Egyptian who has spent years in Afghanistan and has intermarried with the local tribes. Abu Ikhlas is al Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province, having assumed command after Abu Ubaidah al Masri was promoted to take over al Qaeda’s external operations branch (Abu Ubaidah died in early 2008 of a disease).

Background on al Qaeda commanders killed or captured in Kunar

Over the past year, the US military has killed other top Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in Kunar. On Nov. 26, 2009, Dowron, the Taliban commander of the Pech River Valley, was killed in a US strike. Dowron had ties to multiple al Qaeda members and was involved in attacks on Afghan and Coalition forces and bases, as well as on Afghan civilians.

On Dec. 1, 2009, Qari Masiullah, the al Qaeda chief of security for Kunar province, was killed during another operation. 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.

Also, on Oct. 11, 2009, US forces targeted an al Qaeda base in the mountains in Pech. The raid targeted an al Qaeda commander who is known to use the 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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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