The International Security Assistance Force confirmed that it killed a top al Qaeda leader who was targeted in an airstrike over the weekend. A senior al Qaeda IED facilitator and several al Qaeda operatives were also killed in the Sept. 25 airstrike.
Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi, a senior al Qaeda commander “who coordinated the attacks of a group of Arab fighters in Kunar and Nuristan provinces,” was killed after being tracked to “a remote compound in the Korengal Valley” in the district of Pech, ISAF stated in a press release.
“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.”
Also killed in the “precision air strike” were an al Qaeda “explosives expert” named Abu Atta al Kuwaiti “and several Arabic foreign fighters.” The deaths of Qurayshi, al Kuwati, and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders occurred while they were in a meeting.
“ISAF is working to confirm the exact identities of other high-level insurgent commanders, who were meeting when the strike was conducted,” the press release stated.
Al Qaeda maintains a strong presence in Kunar and greater Afghanistan
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.
Al Qaeda’s extensive reach in Afghanistan is documented in the body of press releases issued in recent years by the International Security Assistance Force. Looking at press releases dating back to March 2007, The Long War Journal has been able to detect the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Islamic Jihad Union in 62 different districts in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Al Qaeda operates in conjunction with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hizb-i-Islami Guldbuddin network throughout Afghanistan. Al Qaeda operatives often serve as embedded military trainers for Taliban field units and impart tactics and bomb-making skills to these forces. Al Qaeda often supports the Taliban by funding operations and providing weapons and other aid.
This picture is vastly different from the one painted by top Obama administration intelligence officials including CIA Director Leon Panetta and Nation Counterterrorism Center Director Michal Leiter. Last spring, Panetta and Leiter claimed that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives act active in Afghanistan.
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.