Coalition and Afghan special operations teams captured al Qaeda’s top military commander in Kunar during a raid in the eastern province late last year.
Abu Ikhlas al Masri served as al Qaeda’s operations commander before he was captured in a special operations raid in Kunar in December 2010.
Abu Ikhlas is an Egyptian citizen who has spent years in Afghanistan and has intermarried with the local tribes. He maintains an extensive network in Kunar due to his close links with the tribes. Abu Ikhlas was named al Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province in early 2008. He assumed command of Kunar operations after his predecessor, Abu Ubaidah al Masri, was promoted to take over al Qaeda’s external operations branch (Abu Ubaidah died in early 2008 of a disease).
Abu Ikhlas’s capture was reported by The Wall Street Journal today in an article that noted al Qaeda’s strong presence in Kunar and the Afghan east. In March, The Long War Journal was aware of Abu Ikhlas’s capture, but held the information at the request of US intelligence officials, who cited operational security concerns. Abu Ikhlas is currently being interrogated and has provided information on al Qaeda’s network in Kunar and the wider east.
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.
Despite the known presence of al Qaeda camps in the provinces, US troops have abandoned several combat outposts in Kunar and the neighboring province of Nuristan after major attacks on remote bases. US Army commanders said that the outposts were closed or turned over to Afghan forces as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy to secure population centers.
But as the US military began drawing down its forces in Kunar and Nuristan in late 2009, it acknowledged that al Qaeda camps were in operation in Kunar. ISAF noted these camps and bases when it announced the death of an al Qaeda leader during a raid on a base in late 2009, as well as in a press release announcing the deaths of two senior al Qaeda operatives in 2010. On Dec. 1, 2009, ISAF announced that Qari Masiullah, the al Qaeda chief of security for Kunar province, was killed during an operation in Kunar. 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.
On Oct. 11, 2009, US forces targeted an al Qaeda base in the mountains in Pech. The raid targeted an unnamed al Qaeda commander who is known to use a 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. ISAF uses the term foreign fighters to describe operatives of al Qaeda and allied terror groups from outside Afghanistan.
In October 2010, ISAF identified another al Qaeda camp in Kunar, when US aircraft bombed a compound in the Korengal Valley. Among those killed in the strike was a senior al Qaeda commander and two operatives. Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi, a Saudi, was a senior al Qaeda commander who coordinated the attacks of a group of Arab fighters in Kunar and Nuristan provinces and also maintained extensive contacts with al Qaeda facilitators throughout the Middle East. The two operatives also confirmed killed in the strike were Abu Atta al Kuwaiti, an explosives expert; and Sa’ad Mohammad al Shahri, a longtime jihadist and the son of a retired Saudi colonel.
Special operations teams have been hunting top al Qaeda leaders and its network for years. Last summer, ISAF announced it was hunting Qari Zia Rahman, who serves as the Taliban’s top regional commander in the northeast and 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 agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand.
Rahman has been the target of three large conventional operations and multiple special operations raids over the past year. Conventional US and Afghan forces are currently conducting a major offensive, Operation Iron Eagle III, in the eastern Kunar districts of Sar Kani and Marawara. The US military said Qari Zia Rahman is not the target of the operation but acknowledged he uses the area frequently.
“This is not focused on QZR [Qari Zia Rahman] per se, but overall insurgent operations in the area,” Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Seiber told The Long War Journal. “But it does happen to be in an area he’s worked in previously and if we were able to get him that would certainly be an added bonus/benefit.”
More than 100 Taliban fighters and six US soldiers have been killed during the ongoing operation in Kunar. The governor of Kunar province said 132 Taliban fighters have been killed, 20 have been wounded, and 47 more have been captured during the operation. The governor claimed that many of those killed were “foreigners” but did not provide numbers or nationalities.
US and Afghan special operations teams are also launching raids targeting Qari Zia Rahman during the current Kunar operation.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.