Coalition special operations forces killed yet another al Qaeda leader in an airstrike in a district that serves as a haven for the terror group in northeastern Afghanistan.
Abu Saif and three other al Qaeda operatives were killed on Aug. 31 in “a precision airstrike” in the Watahpur district in Kunar province, the International Security Assistance Force announced in a press release. Abu Saif and the other insurgents were “engaged in terrorist activity” when the airstrike was called in, according to ISAF.
“Four individuals were killed in this operation: three, including Abu Saif, were al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistanis; the fourth was an AQ-affiliated Saudi Arabian,” ISAF told The Long War Journal.
ISAF described Abu Saif, who is also known as Haidar Baba, as a “cross-border facilitator” and a “conduit between senior al Qaeda leaders, passing messages between terrorist leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Additionally, he was “involved in moving al Qaeda’s media operation into Afghanistan.”
Abu Saif was associated with al Qaeda leaders Yusuf and Mufti Assad, who were both killed in an airstrike in Watahpur on Aug. 3. Mufti Assad served as al Qaeda’s emir for Kunar and Yusuf was his deputy; both men were Pakistani citizens and specialized in working with IEDs. Abu Saif was also associated with Hanzallah, an al Qaeda commander who served as a military advisor to “insurgents” in Kunar, Nuristan, and Laghman provinces, and trained fighters in carrying out IED attacks. Hanzallah, a Saudi, and “several of his fighters” were killed in an ISAF airstrike on July 1.
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.
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.
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 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 and released to the public.
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.