Coalition and Afghan special operations forces targeted an al Qaeda leader in an airstrike in the remote northeastern province of Kunar yesterday, killing “numerous” insurgents. Yesterday’s operation took place just one day after Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader for Kunar was killed in an airstrike in the same district.
Yesterday’s airstrike was launched after the combined special operations team “conducted an operation in search of an al Qaeda leader” in the Watahpur district in Kunar, ISAF stated in a press release. “After positively identifying multiple groups of armed insurgents the security force engaged the targets with a precision airstrike killing numerous” fighters, ISAF said.
The al Qaeda leader “provides training for insurgents and acts as a military advisor to Taliban in Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman provinces,” ISAF said. The name and nationality of the al Qaeda leader were withheld “due to operational security” concerns, ISAF’s Joint Command press center told The Long War Journal. ISAF later identified the al Qaeda leader as Hanzallah, a Saudi citizen [see LWJ report, Saudi al Qaeda commander confirmed killed in Kunar airstrike, from July 3].
Al Qaeda operatives and leaders often serve as embedded military trainers for Taliban field units and impart tactics and bombmaking 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.]
Kunar is a key al Qaeda hub in Afghanistan
Watahpur appears to have emerged as a key hub for al Qaeda and allied terror groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Two senior al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders have been killed in airstrikes in Watahpur over the last five weeks.
On June 30, ISAF killed Khatab Shafiq, a Pakistani citizen who served as the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s senior leader in Kunar province. Shafiq established training camps, taught weapons classes, and funded operations.
And on May 28, an ISAF airstrike killed Sakhr al Taifi, a Saudi al Qaeda leader who was also known as Musthaq and Nasim, and another unnamed al Qaeda fighter. Al Taifi served as al Qaeda’s second in command in Afghanistan, according to ISAF.
Al Qaeda’s leader in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province has been identified as Farouq al Qahtani, according to a classified US military assessment that was leaked to The New York Times in February. The assessment, which was based on prisoner interrogations, said that al Qaeda maintains “a small haven” in Kunar and Nuristan.
“Northeastern Afghanistan has become a small haven for al Qaeda. Several al Qaeda commanders, including the Al Qaeda emir for Kunar and Nuristan, Farouq al Qahtani, now live and operate in Afghanistan, with permission from the Taliban, but with the direct support of TTP [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] elements,” the assessment stated.
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.
Al Qaeda is known to run training camps and have established bases in Kunar, and uses the province to direct operations in the Afghan east. ISAF has targeted several bases and camps in Kunar over the years [see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander, for more details].
Al Qaeda remains entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan despite the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. A document seized at bin Laden’s compound suggested that the actual number of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much higher than the official estimates provided by the Obama administration over the past three years, which have remained static at 300-400 members in Pakistan and 50-100 in Afghanistan. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan, and Bin Laden docs hint at large al Qaeda presence in Pakistan.]
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.