Coalition and Afghan special operations forces killed the leader of the al Qaeda-linked, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure, during an airstrike yesterday in the remote eastern province Kunar.
Khatab Shafiq, “the LeT’s [Lashkar-e-Taiba’s] senior leader in Kunar province,” and numerous “insurgents” were killed during two airstrikes in Kunar’s Watahpur district yesterday, the International Security Assistance Force said in a press release.
“[T]he security force engaged the insurgents with a precision airstrike away from all civilian structures,” ISAF said. “After the strike, the Afghan and coalition security force conducted a follow-on assessment and confirmed Khatab Shafiq, along with multiple other insurgents, had been killed.” The special operations force directed a second airstrike after identifying “several more armed insurgents in the immediate area.” ISAF said that no civilians were killed in either strike.
Shafiq’s “country of origin was Pakistan,” a spokesman for ISAF’s Joint Command Media Operations told The Long War Journal.
ISAF said that Shafiq “was responsible for several attacks against Afghan and coalition forces, and provided money, weapons and training to insurgents in the region.” He also “established multiple insurgent training camps in eastern Afghanistan, where insurgents learned how to use mortars, rockets and machine guns. Most recently, he was involved with teaching insurgents how to build and emplace improvised explosive devices.”
Shafiq is the second leader of a foreign terror group killed in Watahpur in Kunar in the past month. On May 28, Sakhr al Taifi, a Saudi al Qaeda leader who was also known as Musthaq and Nasim, and another unnamed al Qaeda fighter were killed in an airstrike in the Watahpur district. Taifi is said to have served as al Qaeda’s second-in-command for Afghanistan. That same day, ISAF targeted another al Qaeda leader in an airstrike in the Dangam district in Kunar.
For years, the rugged, remote Afghan province of Kunar has served as a sanctuary for al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba 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.
The Lashkar-e-Taiba has been directly identified by ISAF as operating in Afghanistan one other time, in July 2010, when it reported the capture of a Taliban commander who is tied to Lashkar-e-Taiba operations in Khugyani district in Nangarhar province.
Background on the Lashkar-e-Taiba
Lashkar-e-Taiba has been linked to numerous complex attacks in eastern Afghanistan and in Kabul. Its fighters are believed to have worked with the Haqqani Network, run by Siraj Haqqani, to carry out attacks on Indian targets in Kabul.
Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters have fought alongside al Qaeda and Taliban in multiple engagements against US and Afghan forces in the east, including the assault on the US combat outpost in Wanat in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, in July 2008. More than 400 enemy fighters launched the coordinated attack. In the fierce fighting at Wanat, nine US troops were killed, 15 US soldiers and four Afghan troops were wounded, and the post was nearly overrun. Although US forces ultimately defeated the attack, they withdrew from the outpost days later.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is thought to have a presence in several of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, including, Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Laghman, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, and Kabul.
The terror group is known to have run training camps in Kunar and Paktia provinces up until the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Lashkar-e-Taiba also currently operates camps in Pakistan in Mansehra, Sindh, Punjab, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan’s military and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate support Lashkar-e-Taiba as part of Pakistan’s so-called strategic depth against rival India.
The terror group, which is backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and the military, and sheltered by the government, essentially runs a state within a state in Pakistan. The sprawling Muridke complex in Punjab houses “a Madrassa (seminary), a hospital, a market, a large residential area for ‘scholars’ and faculty members, a fish farm and agricultural tracts. The LeT also reportedly operates 16 Islamic institutions, 135 secondary schools, an ambulance service, mobile clinics, blood banks and several seminaries across Pakistan,” the Southeast Asia Terrorism Portal reported.
Over a period of years, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has established an organization that rivals Lebanese Hezbollah. The group succeeded in providing aid to earthquake-ravaged regions in Kashmir in 2005 while the Pakistani government was slow to act. Lashkar-e-Taiba is active in fundraising across the Middle East and South Asia, and has recruited scores of Westerners to train in its camps. The most well-known Western recruit is David Coleman Headley, an American citizen who helped scout the deadly November 2008 Mumbai terror assault and also plotted attacks in Europe.
Like al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba seeks to establish a Muslim caliphate in southern and central Asia. Lashkar-e-Taiba “consistently advocated the use of force and vowed that it would plant the ‘flag of Islam’ in Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi,” according to the Southeast Asia Terrorism Portal. Also, like al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba practices Wahabism, the radical Islamist school of thought born in Saudi Arabia.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has an extensive network in southern and southeast Asia. After the Mumbai terror assault in November 2008 that killed 165 people, a senior US military intelligence official described the group as “al Qaeda junior,” as it has vast resources and is able to carry out complex attacks throughout its area of operations. “If by some stroke of luck al Qaeda collapsed, LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) could step in and essentially take its place,” the official told The Long War Journal in November 2008.
The relationship between al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba is complex, the official noted. “While Lashkar-e-Taiba is definitely subordinate to al Qaeda in many ways, it runs its own network and has its own command structure. The groups often train in each others’ camps, and fight side by side in Afghanistan.”
The US government designated Lashkar-e-Taiba as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in December 2001. The Pakistani government banned the group in January 2002, but this did little to shut down its operations. The group renamed itself the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and conducted business as usual.
Hafiz Saeed, the emir of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and several other leaders, have been added to the US’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Last month, the US added Saeed to the Rewards for Justice program, and offered $10 million for information leading to his arrest and prosecution. Saeed continues to operate openly Pakistan.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.