An al Qaeda facilitator was among several jihadist leaders killed in three separate airstrikes on Saturday in the terrorist haven of Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan.
Asadullah, an “al Qaeda-associated facilitator,” was killed in “a precision airstrike” that was directed by Coalition and Afghan special operations forces in the Asadabad district in Kunar on Sept. 15, the International Security Assistance Force stated in a press release.
ISAF said that Asadullah “supported operations of terrorist networks, organizing and conducting attacks against Afghan and coalition forces in the Watahpur Valley” and was “believed to be behind an Aug. 8 suicide attack.”
The Aug. 8 suicide attack killed the command sergeant major for the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, two majors on the brigade staff, and a USAID employee. The attack took place outside the governor’s compound in Asadabad.
Asadullah was an “Afghan Pashtun,” ISAF’s Joint Command Media Operations team told The Long War Journal. He is the second Afghan member of al Qaeda killed by special operations forces in the past week. On Sept. 12, an al Qaeda weapons expert was killed during an operation in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika.
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.]
Two other Taliban operatives were killed in airstrikes in Kunar on Sept. 15. An airstrike in Bar Kunar district killed Mahmood and “more than a dozen armed insurgents,” ISAF said. Mahmood was “behind the May 11 insider attack that killed one coalition service member.”
The May 11 green-on-blue attack took place in Kunar and resulted in the death of one US soldier; two other soldiers were wounded. Mahmood fled to the Taliban, and on Aug. 7 the Taliban released a video showing him being welcomed as a hero [see Threat Matrix report, Observations on Taliban video ‘welcoming’ rogue ANA soldiers].
Also killed in an airstrike in Kunar on Saturday was Mullah Jalal, the Taliban’s shadow governor for Ghaziabad district. ISAF said that Jalal had “issued plans to increase attacks against Afghan and Coalition security forces” and “met frequently with other Taliban senior leaders to discuss strategies against the local Afghan forces.”
Al Qaeda presence is pervasive in Afghanistan
While ISAF and the US government have characterized al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan as being confined to the remote northeast provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, ISAF’s own press releases identifying raids against al Qaeda present an even starker picture. ISAF has conducted raids against al Qaeda leaders and associates in Balkh, Farah, Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Wardak, and Zabul, or 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Many of these raids have taken place over the past two years.
Since the end of May, special operations forces have conducted at least 20 raids against al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan. The raids took place in 11 different districts in seven provinces — Ghazni, Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktika, and Takhar. ISAF does not disclose information or issue a press release on each raid conducted against terror groups in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda and allied terror groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Islamic Jihad Union, maintain an extensive reach in Afghanistan. This is documented in the body of press releases issued in recent years by ISAF. Looking at press releases dating back to March 2007, The Long War Journal has been able to detect the presence of al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 114 different districts in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Kunar and Watahpur are jihadist safe havens
Kunar is a known al Qaeda haven. Since the end of May, seven al Qaeda leaders and two Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders have been killed in airstrikes in Watahpur alone. Additionally, an undisclosed number of al Qaeda fighters have been killed in the strikes [see LWJ report, ISAF kills Taliban district governor, ‘dozens’ of fighters in Kunar airstrikes, for more details]. Additionally, three al Qaeda-associated Taliban commanders were killed in three separate airstrikes in Watahpur in mid-August [see LWJ report, ISAF kills, captures al Qaeda-linked Taliban commanders in east].
Osama bin Laden mentioned that both Kunar and Ghazni provinces are ideal fallback positions for al Qaeda operatives seeking to escape the US drone strikes in North and South Waziristan, according to one of the documents seized from his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
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 or kill him.
US troops abandoned several combat outposts in Kunar in late 2009 after major attacks on remote bases despite the fact that al Qaeda had an extensive presence in the province. 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, ISAF said.
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.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.