The Coalition confirmed that al Qaeda’s leader for Kunar province and his deputy were killed in Friday’s airstrike in the Watahpur district. Both al Qaeda leaders were Pakistani citizens, the International Security Assistance Force told The Long War Journal. Additionally, an al Qaeda facilitator who ran IED training camps was killed in a separate strike in Watahpur on the same day.
Mufti Assad, al Qaeda’s emir for Kunar, and his deputy, Yusuf, were killed in the Aug. 3 airstrike in the key al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba hub of Watahpur, ISAF stated in a press release. Special operations forces called in an airstrike after engaging the al Qaeda force during a raid, ISAF said yesterday [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda-linked fighters killed in airstrike in Kunar].
Assad, who was also known as Mufti Punjabi, Abdul Qudus, and Sufyan, “controlled al-Qaeda terrorists operating in Kunar,” ISAF said. “He led dozens of al Qaeda affiliated fighters throughout eastern Afghanistan and coordinated their attacks across the region.”
Additionally Assad served as “an explosives expert who provided training to insurgents on how to construct and use improvised explosive devices.”
Yusuf, al Qaeda’s deputy emir for Kunar who was also known as Omar and Rayhman, was “an IED expert who directed insurgent attacks across eastern Afghanistan.”
Assad and Yusuf “were both Pakistani” citizens, ISAF’s Joint Command Media Operations told The Long War Journal.
ISAF also confirmed that Fatah Gul, an “al Qaeda facilitator” who ran IED training camps, was killed in a separate airstrike in Watahpur on Friday. Gul, who was also known as Inzir and Shahid, “provided safe haven to al Qaeda affiliated terrorists operating in eastern Afghanistan.”
Gul “also ran terrorist training camps where insurgents learned how to conduct improvised explosive devices attacks,” ISAF stated. Gul was an Afghan citizen, ISAF’s Joint Command Media Operations told The Long War Journal.
Pakistani jihadists serve as al Qaeda’s deep bench
Pakistanis have increasingly taken on leadership roles in al Qaeda over the past several years. Pakistani jihadists serve as al Qaeda’s “deep bench” who fill leadership and other vital roles in the network. Three senior Pakistanis who served as top al Qaeda leaders have been killed in drone strikes just across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan over the past year.
In June 2011, Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a drone strike that leveled a compound in the Wana area of South Waziristan. Kashmiri served as al Qaeda’s military commander and head of the Lashkar-al Zil, or Shadow Army. He also was a member of al Qaeda’s external operations network executive council. A longtime jihadist in Pakistan, Kashmiri was a senior leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami.
A Jan. 11, 2012 strike in Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan, killed Aslam Awan, a deputy to the leader of al Qaeda’s external operations network.
A Feb. 8 strike killed Badr Mansoor, a senior Taliban and al Qaeda leader, in Miramshah’s bazaar. Mansoor ran training camps in the area and sent fighters to battle NATO and Afghan forces across the border, and linked up members of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen with al Qaeda to fight in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden described Mansoor as one of several commanders of al Qaeda’s “companies” operating in the tribal areas. He was later promoted to lead al Qaeda’s forces in the tribal areas.
Kunar an important al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba haven
The Watahpur district in Kunar appears to have emerged as an important hub for al Qaeda and allied terror groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In addition to the three al Qaeda leaders killed on Friday, ISAF has killed two other al Qaeda emirs and two Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders in Watahpur since the end of May.
On July 1, an airstrike killed Hanzallah, a Saudi national “who acted as a military advisor to insurgents in Kunar, Nuristan, and Laghman provinces and provided them with improvised explosive device training.” Several other unidentified al Qaeda operatives were also said to have been killed in the strike.
On June 29, an ISAF airstrike killed Khatab Shafiq, a Pakistani citizen who served as Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader for Kunar province, and Ammar, another commander for the terror group.
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.
Additionally, Qari Zia Rahman, a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban leader, operates in Kunar province as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Mohmand and Bajaur. ISAF forces have been hunting Qari Zia for years but have failed to capture of kill him.
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.]
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.
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.]
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].
For more information on Kunar province and the al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba presence there, see LWJ reports, ISAF targets al Qaeda leader in Kunar, and ISAF kills Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader for Kunar in airstrike.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.