Coalition special operations continue to target al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Yesterday, an “al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader” was the focus of a raid in the Pech district.
Yesterday’s raid by Coalition and Afghan special operations forces targeted the Taliban leader in the Pech district, the International Security Assistance Force stated in a press release. The special operations forces launched “a precision airstrike” after “the security force observed three armed individuals engaging in insurgent activity,” ISAF said.
ISAF later stated that the leader, Asad, and two other insurgents, were killed. ISAF said Asad was also affiliated with the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammed [TNSM or the Movement for the Enforcement of Mohammed’s Law], a Taliban group that operates in northwestern Pakistan. The TNSM was instrumental in taking over the Pakistani district of Swat from 2007-2009. Its leader, Sufi Mohammed, sent more than 10,000 Pakistanis to fight US forces in Afghanistan in 2001-2002.
ISAF said that the Asad “was suspected of directing attacks against Afghan and coalition forces while facilitating the movement of weapons throughout the region,” and was based in the Kunar district of Marawara.
Kunar province remains a major al Qaeda hub in Afghanistan. So far this year, 12 of the raids 57 raids against foreign jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have taken place in Kunar province.
Since the end of May, special operations forces have conducted at least 21 raids against al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan. The raids have taken place in 12 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.
ISAF’s own reports of its raids against al Qaeda in Afghanistan contradict US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s assessment. On Sept. 28, Panetta said that “al Qaeda has been denied safe haven [in Afghanistan], and obviously its leadership has been decimated,” according to the Examiner.
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 jihadist safe haven
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 Kunar’s Watahpur district alone. The airstrikes have also killed an undisclosed number of al Qaeda fighters [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 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.
In late 2009, US troops abandoned several combat outposts in Kunar 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 even 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.