A senior al Qaeda leader wanted by the Saudi government was among several terrorists killed in an airstrike in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar 12 days ago. The commander, Abu Hafs al Najdi, served as al Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province and was responsible for “establishing insurgent camps and training sites” throughout the province. The International Security Assistance Force said that Najdi is one of more than 25 al Qaeda operatives killed in Afghanistan over the past month.
Najdi, a Saudi citizen on his country’s list of 85 most wanted terrorists, was killed along with another senior al Qaeda leader in the April 14 airstrike in the Dangam district in Kunar. Najdi, whose real name was Saleh Naiv Almakhlvi Day and who was also known as Abdul Ghani, was number 23 on the list of most wanted terrorists that was issued by the Saudi government in February 2009. US military officials told The Long War Journal that Hajdi was ISAF’s number two target in Afghanistan.
Najdi was meeting with Waqas, a senior al Qaeda operative who was from Pakistan, when both commanders and an unspecified number of other operatives were killed in the April 14 airstrike, ISAF stated in a press release today.
As the operations chief for Kunar province, Najdi “directed al Qaeda operations in the province, including recruiting; training and employing fighters; obtaining weapons and equipment; organizing al Qaeda finances; and planning attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces,” ISAF stated. Najdi “operated primarily from Kunar and he traveled frequently between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Najdi was responsible for “establishing insurgent camps and training sites, teaching insurgents, explosive device construction and attack procedures,” ISAF stated.
ISAF said that Najdi “was responsible for the coordination of numerous high-profile attacks,” including the suicide attack that killed a pro-government tribal leader in Kunar and nine other Afghans. That attack took place the same day he was killed in the airstrike. ISAF also linked Najdi to several attacks on US and Afghan outposts since late 2010, including a December 2010 attack and two attacks on Afghan outposts in February. He also directed kidnapping operations against foreigners and suicide attacks against “US government officials.”
Najdi also served as “a key financial conduit between Pakistan-based leaders and
insurgent operatives in Afghanistan.” In this role, he “was able to streamline
control of assets,” allowing terrorist groups to obtain more weapons, ammunition, explosives, and equipment.
Kunar is an al Qaeda safe haven
Since September 2010, ISAF has killed or captured six top al Qaeda commanders and operatives in Kunar. In addition to killing Najdi and Waqas, special operations forces captured Abu Ikhlas al Masri, the previous operations chief for Kunar, in December 2010. [For more information, see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander.]
In October 2010, US aircraft killed three al Qaeda operatives in an airstrike on a compound in the Korengal Valley. Among those killed in the strike were 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. Qurayshi has also been described as al Qaeda’s third in command in Afghanistan. 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. Shahri, like Najdi, was on a Saudi most wanted list.
ISAF has also been actively hunting another top al Qaeda commander, Qari Zia Rahman, since last summer. Rahman has been described as a “dual hatted al Qaeda and Taliban commander,” and leads forces in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand.
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.
ISAF has admitted that al Qaeda has a significant presence in Afghanistan. In today’s press release announcing the death of Najdi, ISAF said that “more than 25 al Qaeda leaders and fighters” have been killed over the past month. This is in stark contrast to claims that there are only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. This claim has been made by top US intelligence and military leaders, including General David Petraeus, the commander of ISAF.
“There is no question that al-Qaida has had a presence in Afghanistan and continues to have a presence – generally assessed at less than 100 or so,” General Petraeus told reporters in Kabul on April 10.
Despite the known presence of al Qaeda camps, 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. US officials also claimed that the US presence in these remote valleys created the conditions for a local insurgency, and that the locals would cease fighting after US forces left.
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 targeted three al Qaeda camps in Kunar between October 2009 and October 2010.
The withdrawal of US forces from the Korengal and Pech river valleys in Kunar has created more space for al Qaeda and the Taliban to expand their operations in the region. The US has abandoned counterinsurgency efforts in the province and has shifted to carrying out massive sweeps and special operations raids to “mow the grass,” as one general recently told The Wall Street Journal.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.