Yesterday the International Security Assistance Force conducted two raids targeting insurgent leaders with ties to al Qaeda inside Afghanistan.
In the Watahpur district in Kunar province, Afghan and Coalition forces killed a leader named Mohammed Yar Gul and two other insurgents. Gul “coordinated the movement of insurgent fighters throughout Kunar province,” ISAF reported. He also “was directly involved in suicide attack operations in the region and planned and conducted improvised explosive device attacks against Afghan and coalition forces in Watahpur district.”
ISAF told The Long War Journal that Gul was “affiliated with Al Qaeda” and that he was of Pashtun descent. ISAF would not identify Gul’s nationality, but because of the Watahpur’s close proximity to the Pakistan border it is highly possible that Gul could be a Pakistani national. The two other insurgents were not identified.
Gul’s death is the first reported killing of an insurgent with direct ties to al Qaeda in over two months in Afghanistan. The last known raid targeting an al Qaeda-linked insurgent occurred on Sept. 28, when an “al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader” was killed during an airstrike. This raid was also conducted in Kunar province, a hotbed for al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan.
Statements suggest that ISAF is not reporting all of the raids targeting the group, however. When asked in late November about the gap in reported raids against al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan between October and November of this year, ISAF told The Long War Journal that “[f]or reasons internal to ISAF there were no operational reports issued during that time period.”
“That does not indicate there were no missions executed, just that there was not a release issued,” ISAF continued. ISAF would not disclose the reasons for not issuing the press releases on raids against al Qaeda and allied groups.
Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, an IMU facilitator was detained yesterday during an operation in Kunduz district, Kunduz province. ISAF reported that “the facilitator oversaw the transfer of improvised explosive device materials to insurgents, and directed the emplacement of IEDs against Afghan and coalition forces.” This marks the 15th IMU operative targeted in Kunduz province and 38th member of the group targeted this year.
Identifying al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan
Yesterday’s raids targeting Mohammed Yar Gul in Kunar province and the IMU facilitator in Kunduz provide more confirmation that the two provinces are hotbeds for al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliated activity in Afghanistan.
So far this year, 12 al Qaeda operatives or insurgents with ties to the group have been targeted in Kunar province, including eight in the Watahpur district alone, according to a study by The Long War Journal. Prior to the killing of Gul yesterday, the last al Qaeda operative to be targeted in Watahpur was Abu Saif, who died in an airstrike on Aug. 31 along with two other Pakistani al Qaeda-affiliated operatives and a Saudi. In 2011, only three raids were reportedly conducted against al Qaeda in Kunar province; in comparison to this year’s raids, a disturbing increase in al Qaeda activity in the province is evident. And neighboring Nuristan province has seen two reported operations targeting al Qaeda in 2012, whereas there were none last year.
The raid in Kunduz province yesterday brings the number of reported operations targeting the al Qaeda-affiliated IMU in Kunduz this year to 16, which indicates that the province remains a stronghold of IMU activity despite repeated Afghan and Coalition efforts against the group.
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, eight 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.
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