ISAF targets al Qaeda leaders in Kunar

Coalition and Afghan special operations forces targeted two al Qaeda leaders in separate airstrikes today in the northeastern Afghan province on Kunar. The raids are the first reported against al Qaeda by the Coalition since the end of January.

In one raid, the combined special operations team targeted an unnamed “al Qaeda leader” and called in an airstrike in the Dangam district, according to an International Security Assistance Force press release. The al Qaeda leader “facilitates the movement of weapons, equipment and insurgents,” and “procures and transports supplies for insurgents throughout the province,” ISAF stated. One “insurgent” was reported killed in the airstrike.

In the other operation, the combined Coalition and Afghan force targeted “a senior al Qaeda leader” and launched another airstrike in the Watahpur district, according to ISAF. The al Qaeda leader “coordinates and directs insurgent attacks against Afghan security forces and Coalition troops throughout eastern Afghanistan.” He also “supplies weapons and equipment to insurgents.” Two “insurgents” were killed in the strike.

Al Qaeda operatives and leaders often serve as embedded military trainers for Taliban field units and impart tactics and bomb-making skills to these forces. In addition, al Qaeda frequently supports the Taliban by funding operations and providing weapons and other aid. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army’ for more information on al Qaeda’s role in Afghanistan.]

Today’s announcement of the targeting of the two leaders is the first ISAF press release noting the capture, death, or targeting of an al Qaeda operative since Jan. 30, when an al Qaeda facilitator was captured during a raid in the eastern province of Paktia.

ISAF Joint Command’s press desk has previously told The Long War Journal that the lack of reporting on raids against al Qaeda “should not be misinterpreted as lack of operational rigor against those entities.”

“ISAF continues to conduct combat operations against the spectrum of insurgent forces through-out Afghanistan year-round,” IJC press desk stated on Jan. 30.

Background on al Qaeda’s stronghold in Kunar

Kunar is a known haven for al Qaeda and allied terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Six months prior to his death, Osama bin Laden issued instructions to his chief of staff, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, to relocate “hundreds” of commanders and fighters from North Waziristan to Kunar, Nuristan, Ghazni, and Zabul provinces in Afghanistan to avoid targeting by US drone strikes. Bin Laden’s letter to Atiyah was dated Oct. 21, 2010. [See LWJ report, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan.]

It is unclear if bin Laden’s instructions were followed, but several al Qaeda leaders and operatives were killed, captured, and targeted in those four provinces after the letter was written. Bin Laden said that “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.”

For years, the rugged, remote Afghan province of Kunar has served as a sanctuary for al Qaeda and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda cells has been detected in the districts of Asmar, Asadabad, Dangam, Marawana, Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Shigal, and Watahpur; or nine of Kunar’s 15 districts, according to press releases issued by the International Security Assistance Force that have been compiled by The Long War Journal.

Despite the known presence of al Qaeda camps in Kunar, US troops abandoned several combat outposts in Kunar in late 2009 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. The Taliban have gained control of several districts in Kunar since US forces withdrew from those bases.

But as the US military began drawing down its forces in Kunar in late 2009, it acknowledged that al Qaeda camps were in operation in the province. 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 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 September 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 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. The other two operatives also 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 in Kunar and Nuristan for years. In the summer of 2010, 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 Nuristan, as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand. In 2010, Rahman and his network were the targets of three large conventional operations and multiple special operations raids.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • Ghost Soldier says:

    Qari Zia Ur-Rahman does not operate in Nuristan. In fact, he does not operate north of Marawarah District. On the occasion that you can tie him to an effort north of Marawarah, it is not support he’s providing physically. It’s the occasional supplying of arms or suicide bombers that makes him ‘involved’ on occasion in north/northeastern Kunar Province.

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