Two of the 17 documents released by the US government from the large cache seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound indicate that al Qaeda has a much larger footprint in Pakistan than US officials have claimed.
One of the documents is a Dec. 3, 2010 letter to Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan; the letter was written jointly by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who at the time served as bin Laden’s chief of staff, and Abu Yahya al Libi, a top religious leader who is now Ayman al Zawahiri’s deputy. In the letter, the two al Qaeda leaders critique Hakeemullah’s leadership style and comment further on a “draft” document that Hakeemullah had previously submitted to al Qaeda. In addition, the two al Qaeda leaders admonish Hakeemullah for attempting to give orders to an al Qaeda commander operating in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan. [See LWJ report, Bin Laden docs: Al Qaeda asserts authority in letter to Pakistani Taliban leader.]
The al Qaeda commander was identified as Badr Mansoor, who was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan in February of this year. Atiyah and Abu Yahya tell Hakeemulah to stop issuing orders to Mansoor and to quit attempting to recruit his men.
“We make it clear to you that the brother Badr (Mansoor) is one of the soldiers of the Qaedat al-Jihad Organization who swore allegiance to Sheikh Osama (bin Laden), is with us, under our command, the Emir of a company of ours,” they wrote. “Badr Mansoor and other members of our group are not to be approached to join another organization or to deploy to other locations. Good manners and group work mandate that such a request be presented to his Tanzim (al Qaeda) Emir and superiors,” Atiyah and Abu Yahya said.
The statement is significant as it identified Badr Mansoor as a leader of but one “company” of al Qaeda forces operating in Pakistan.
At the time of his death, Mansoor was described as al Qaeda’s leader in Pakistan who was closely linked to other Pakistani terror groups. Mansoor was able to funnel in recruits from Pakistani terror groups such as the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, with which he was closely linked.
Mansoor was known to have a large cadre of fighters at his disposal. According to Central Asia Online, Mansoor’s company had “more than 2,200 members with 350 hardcore fighters and more than 150 suicide bombers.” Mansoor’s group is believed to have participated in terror attacks in Pakistan’s major cities, including Lahore, Karachi, and Quetta, indicating that its network is not confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The US government has consistently estimated the number of al Qaeda leaders and operatives in Pakistan at between 300 and 400. This estimate has remained static since 2010, and does not appear to account for al Qaeda’s Pakistani companies.
Other al Qaeda units in Pakistan
Al Qaeda is also known to have several other units in Pakistan besides the Badr Mansoor Group. Ilyas Kashmiri’s Brigade 313 is considered one of the most dangerous and effective al Qaeda formations in Pakistan. While the size of Brigade 313 is not known, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that it is at least as large as the Badr Mansoor group. Brigade 313’s members are recruited from the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Jundallah (the Karachi-based, al Qaeda-linked group), and several other Pakistani terror groups. Kashmiri was killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan in June 2011. Before his death, Kashmiri served as al Qaeda’s overall military commander; Mansoor was one of his deputies.
Another known al Qaeda “company” commander operating in Pakistan is Asmatullah Muawiya, a former Jaish-e-Mohammad commander. While the size of Asmatullah’s force is not publicly known, a US intelligence official estimated that the group has “several hundred jihadis.”
The Qari Zafar Group is another al Qaeda “company” that operates in Pakistan. Named after Qari Mohammad Zafar, a Laskhar-e-Jhangvi leader who also led the Fedayeen-e-Islam and was killed in a US drone strike North Waziristan in February 2010, the group has conducted attacks in Karachi, Islamabad, and in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Qari Zafar Group is thought to have thousands of fighters and supporters in Pakistan.
The alliance between al Qaeda and the numerous Pakistani terror groups allows al Qaeda to maintain what US intelligence officials call a “deep bench” of talent that is available to replace leaders and fighters killed in drone strikes and fighting.
“Al Qaeda is taking advantage of decades of networking in Pakistan, not just in the tribal areas, but in Pakistan proper, to develop a deep bench of leaders and foot soldiers who can be brought into the organization when there are vacancies,” a US official told The Long War Journal after Badr Mansoor was killed in February.
That point was demonstrated by the speed with which al Qaeda backfilled Badr Mansoor’s position. According to the Pakistani press, al Qaeda swiftly named Farman Shinwari as Mansoor’s successor. Like Mansoor, Shinwari has close ties to Pakistani terror groups, and specifically the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen.
“All of Farman Shinwari’s brothers are affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan) and other militant groups,” The News reported. “His elder brother Hazrat Nabi Shinwari, alias Tamanchy Mulla, was a theology teacher in a government-run school in Landikotal. He was leading the TTP in Khyber Agency in 2005 and also used to send militants to Kashmir and Afghanistan. He has remained the head of Harkatul Mujahideen and is nowadays said to be leading his group of TTP men in Waziristan.”
The Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), which operates openly in Pakistan with the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, has long supported al Qaeda. Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil, the leader of HUM, is living in the open in a suburb of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Osama bin Laden consulted Khalil before issuing his infamous fatwa against the US. Khalil’s group has been involved in numerous acts of terror in the region, including the hijacking of an Indian airplane, an attack on the US Consulate in Karachi, the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and a series of terror attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. According to The New York Times, one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers, who was killed during the Abbottabad raid, had phone numbers linking him to the HUM.
Additionally, leaked threat assessments authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) contain further revelations about the relationship between Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and al Qaeda [see LWJ report, Bin Laden’s courier tied to Pakistani-backed terror group]. Daniel Pearl was murdered in the home of Saud Memon, who was identified by several members of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen al-Alami (HUMA), an offshoot with close ties to its parent organization, as their “chief financial backer.” According to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he referred to Memon as “al Qaeda’s finance chief in Pakistan.”
The ties between AQ and HUM are also corroborated by the JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Mohammed Ilyas, a known Pakistani jihadist who served as a recruiter and trainer at a Harakat-ul-Mujahideen al-Alami camp in Mansehra, Pakistan. A footnote in the report states that HUMA is tied to al Qaeda.
“Kamran Atif, a terrorist who was recently arrested by the Pakistani Crime Investigation Department (CID) Police revealed that HUMA [Harakat-ul-Mujahideen al-Alami] has links with al Qaeda and that HUMA and AQ are ‘in complete contact with each other,'” the footnote said.
Both Ilyas and Atif have been involved multiple terrorist attacks in Pakistan that have also been linked to al Qaeda.
Bin Laden orders movement of hundreds of operatives to Afghanistan
The other document from the 17 publicly released bin Laden files that suggests a substantial al Qaeda presence in Pakistan is a letter from bin Laden dated Oct. 21, 2010 and addressed to Atiyah. In the letter, the al Qaeda emir advises that “hundreds of the brothers” be relocated from North and South Waziristan to Kunar province in Afghanistan in order to avoid drone strikes.
“Note: there is no comparison between the fortification of Kunar and Zabul and Ghazni [provinces],” bin Laden says. “Kunar is more fortified due to its rougher terrain and the many mountains, rivers, and trees and it can accommodate hundreds of the brothers without being spotted by the enemy.”
Bin Laden also said, however, that not all of the fighters should leave Waziristan, and that some should remain.
“Regarding the brothers in Waziristan in general, whoever can keep a low profile and take the necessary precautions, should stay in the area and those who cannot do so, their first option is to go to Nuristan in Kunar [sic], Ghazni or Zabul. I am leaning toward getting most of the brothers out of the area,” bin Laden said.
Although it is unclear to what extent bin Laden’s instructions were followed, ISAF has noted that al Qaeda operatives have been killed and captured in Kunar, Ghazni, and Zabul provinces in 2011.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.