Jihadists launched a complex assault on a major Coalition military base in Helmand today. At least two Coalition soldiers were killed and several aircraft and a hangar were damaged during heavy fighting after the Taliban breached the wire. The attack is similar to other attacks carried out by a constellation of jihadist groups in both Pakistan and Afghanistan over the years.
The attack took place early Saturday morning Afghan time at Camp Bastion, a large base in the middle of the desert in Helmand province that, along with the adjoining Camp Leatherneck, houses more than 21,000 US and British military personnel.
An estimated jihadist fighters breached the perimeter and fought their way to the airfield. Two ISAF soldiers, who are reported to be US Marines, were killed during the fighting and several more were wounded, according to Reuters. The International Security Assistance Force issued a press release today announcing that “service members died following an insurgent attack in southern Afghanistan today,” but did not identify the troops.
ISAF later confirmed the attack and said that the fighters “infiltrated the perimeter” and “attacked International Security Assistance Force personnel and facilities using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide improvised explosive device vests.”
“The attack, which began shortly after 10 p.m., killed two ISAF service members, wounded several and caused damage to multiple aircraft and structures along the base’s flight line.,” ISAF continued. All of the fighters were killed except one, who was wounded and is in custody.
ISAF said that Camp Bastion “is currently secure” and security forces “cleared the large base of attackers early this morning.”
The attack caused “major damage to buildings, an aircraft hangar, and several military jets,” according to SKY News.
The base is known to host Britain’s Prince Harry, a helicopter pilot who just arrived in country. Just four days ago, a Taliban spokesman said his group would do everything they could to kill or kidnap him while conducting the “Harry operations.”
“We are using all our strength to get rid of him, either by killing or kidnapping,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters on Sept. 10. “We have informed our commanders in Helmand to do whatever they can to eliminate him.”
The Taliban occasionally launch rockets and mortars at Bastion and Leatherneck, but have yet to launch a massed assault there. Bastion is located in the Dasht-i-Margo, or Desert of Death, and is not easily accessible.
The suicide assault is a common tactic in Afghanistan and Pakistan
The attack at Bastion appears to be very similar to other attacks at major Coalition installations in Afghanistan, as well as at Pakistani military bases inside Pakistan. Over the years, the Taliban, operating with the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and a host of smaller foreign jihadist groups, have launched several such attacks in the Afghan east or in Kandahar, but not in Helmand.
Some of the more notable attacks are described below:
The Haqqani Network, a Taliban subgroup in the east, and al Qaeda launched a complex suicide assault on Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province in June 2012 that resulted in the deaths of two civilian contractors and one US soldier inside the base; scores more soldiers were said to have been wounded in the attack. The suicide blast, which blew a hole in the wall and allowed the fighters to breach the wire, also leveled the base PX and the dining facility. The Taliban later released a Haqqani Network video documenting the attack. An Omani jihadist was one of the members of the assault team.
In May 2010, a joint Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and al Qaeda strike team attacked Bagram Air Base in Parwan province; 16 enemy fighters and a civilian contractor were killed during the fighting. The IMU later released a video saying that “there were Turks, Tajiks, Arabs, Pashtuns, and Afghans” involved in the attack. Bekkay Harrach, a German national who operated along the Afghan-Pakistani border, is thought to have been killed while leading the assault on Bagram.
The Taliban have launched several attacks against Jalalabad Airfield in Nangarhar province in the recent past. The last major attack took place in November 2011, when a six-man suicide assault team was gunned down while attempting to storm the base. In June 2010, a suicide assault team attempted to penetrate security but was repelled during a firefight with US and Afghan security forces manning the perimeter.
In Pakistan, jihadist groups, including the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, al Qaeda, the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and the so-called Punjabi Taliban, have launched numerous successful suicide assaults against major Pakistani installations.
In August 2010, the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for an assault at Kamra Air Base; six Taliban fighters and two Pakistanis were killed during fighting inside the base. One aircraft was destroyed and two others were damaged in the attack. Kamra is thought to be related to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
In May 2011 the Taliban launched an assault on the Pakistani Naval Station Mehran in Karachi. During that assault, the Taliban destroyed two US-made P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes and damaged another, and killed 10 Pakistani troops.
The most brazen attack took place at Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in October 2009. A suicide assault team stormed the facility and took control of several buildings before being killed. Six Pakistani soldiers, including a brigadier general and a lieutenant colonel, and four terrorists were killed during the siege.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.