During an ongoing operation in the restive northeastern province of Kunar, Coalition and Afghan forces have killed a Taliban leader who worked closely with al Qaeda.
Gul Nabi, who was described by the US military as “a mid-level Taliban commander” and “an al Qaeda associate,” was killed on Oct. 17 by a combined US and Afghan force during a firefight near the village of Mantanga in the Shuryak Valley in the district of Pech (or Manogi). An Afghan official said six other Taliban fighters also were killed during the clash.
Nabi was “responsible for several ambushes on Afghan and coalition forces convoys,” according to a press release by Combined Joint Task Force – 101. “He also planned and led attacks against the Afghan Parliamentary elections, conducted kidnappings of local Afghans for ransom, and facilitated the movement of Pakistani and Arab fighters into Kunar province.”
On Oct. 15, US and Afghan troops launched an operation in the Pech River Valley with the purpose of “denying safe havens for insurgents and bolstering the Government Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s influence in local villages,” according to a US military press release.
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.
The US military has killed three senior al Qaeda leaders in Kunar over the past month. On Sept. 25, a US airstrike killed a senior al Qaeda leader named Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi, an “explosives expert” named Abu Atta al Kuwaiti, “and several Arabic foreign fighters.” Sa’ad Mohammad al Shahri, a longtime jihadist and the son of a retired Saudi colonel, is also thought to have been killed in the strike.
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.
Throughout Afghanistan, al Qaeda operates in conjunction with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. Al Qaeda operatives frequently serve as embedded military trainers for Taliban field units and impart tactics and bomb-making skills to these forces. In addition, 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 Michael Leiter. Last spring, Panetta and Leiter claimed that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives are 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 three 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. A few days earlier, 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. The Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran was behind the kidnapping in late September of a female British aid worker who was accidentally killed during a rescue operation in early October by US special operations forces.
The US 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 other al Qaeda commanders killed or captured in Kunar
General David Petraeus said a few days ago that al Qaeda has recently been re-infiltrating into Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province from Pakistan. But 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.
And earlier, 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.
• Taliban leader killed during Pech River Valley operation, Combined Joint Task Force – 101 press release
• Taliban commander killed in Kunar, Pajwhok Afghan News
• Security forces begin operations in the Pech River Valley, Combined Joint Task Force – 101 press release
• ISAF kills senior al Qaeda leader and an IED expert in Kunar strike, The Long War Journal
• Wanted Saudi al Qaeda operative killed in Afghanistan airstrike, The Long War Journal
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.