Coalition and Afghan forces killed a Taliban shadow district governor, his deputy, and ‘dozens’ of fighters in two airstrikes yesterday in the remote eastern province of Kunar, a known al Qaeda haven.
In the first incident, in the Chapah Darah district, the combined special operations force called in an airstrike after they “observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity,” the International Security Assistance Force stated in a press release.
Among those killed in the airstrike were Maulawi Nur Mohammad, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Chapah Darah district, and Atiqullah, his deputy who is also known as Khalid, and “dozens of heavily armed insurgents,” ISAF stated.
Mohammad “was the senior Taliban leader for Chapah Darah district,” ISAF said. “He planned and directed all Taliban activity in the district including attacks against Afghan civilians and Afghan and coalition forces.” Afghan officials said that between 30 and 60 fighters were killed among the 80 fighters who had gathered, according to AFP. Pajhwok Afghan News said that 52 fighters, including Mohammad, were killed in the strike in the village of Hussainzoy.
The Taliban had gathered to conduct a public execution of a man who was accused of killing a rival, the Chapah Darah district police chief told AFP.
In the second attack, in the Watahpur district, special operations forces called in an airstrike after identifying “several insurgents,” ISAF stated. The airstrike killed “many of them.” ISAF did not provide the affiliation of the “insurgents” who were targeted.
“Four Pakistanis, two Arabs, and a regional Taliban commander” known as Nasar were killed in the strike in Watahpur, according to Pajhwok Afghan News.
ISAF said that no civilians were killed in either strike. The Taliban claimed that nine civilians were killed in the attack in Chapah Darah district and disputed the number of casualties.
ISAF has increasingly relied on airstrikes to take out Taliban, al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other insurgent leaders and fighters during raids.
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. Since the end of May, five al Qaeda leaders and two Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders have been killed in airstrikes in Watahpur.
On Aug. 3, ISAF killed Mufti Assad, al Qaeda’s emir for Kunar, his deputy, Yusuf, and Fatah Gul, an al Qaeda facilitator, in separate strikes in Watahpur.
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.
Another senior al Qaeda leader known to operate in Kunar is Azzam Abdullah Zureik Al Maulid Al Subhi, a Saudi who is better known as Mansur al Harbi. He was added by the State Department to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list on Aug. 7. The Saudi Interior Ministry has said that al Harbi works “at a training camp in Afghanistan and is tied to numerous senior al Qaeda leaders including Abdel Aziz Migrin and Saif al Adel.” Migrin headed al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia and led attacks in the kingdom before he was killed in a firefight with Saudi security forces in June 2004. Saif al Adel is al Qaeda’s second in command and top military strategist, and served as the interim leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011.
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.