ISAF targets al Qaeda leader in Kunar

Coalition and Afghan special operations forces targeted a senior al Qaeda leader during a raid yesterday in a district in Kunar province that is known to host al Qaeda’s network.

The combined special operations force killed two “insurgents” during a raid in the Watahpur district in Kunar, the International Security Assistance Force stated in a press release.

The target of the raid was “a senior al Qaida leader” who serves as an operations chief, trainer, and facilitator in the east, ISAF noted.

“The senior leader is responsible for al-Qaida operations in the Waygal and Watahpur Valley,” ISAF stated. “He oversees al-Qaida training in Nuristan where he provides improvised explosive device, artillery and counter-interrogation technique training to insurgents.”

“He also plans and conducts IED, indirect fire and direct fire attacks against Afghan and coalition forces,” ISAF continued.

ISAF would not provide further detail, including the nationality, on the al Qaeda leader.

Al Qaeda operatives are known to train members of affiliates and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These trainers provide instructions for battling security forces in local insurgencies as well as knowledge, expertise, funding, and resources to conduct local and international attacks. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army’, for more information on al Qaeda’s military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.]

Yesterday’s raid is the second reported by ISAF against al Qaeda’s network in eastern Afghanistan in two weeks. On May 15, ISAF targeted the “top military official” for the Taliban in Nuristan’s Waygal district. The Taliban commander is known to facilitate the movement of al Qaeda operatives into the region.

Today’s mention of al Qaeda by ISAF is just the fourth in its press releases this year. In addition to the May 15 raid, ISAF announced on Jan. 24 that Wali, an al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader who coordinated the two groups’ operations in the province, was killed during an operation in Dangam district in Kunar province. The day before, on Jan. 23, ISAF announced that it targeted another al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader during an operation in Ghaziabad district in Kunar.

ISAF has not explained the lack of reporting on operations against al Qaeda, and has declined a request by The Long War Journal to discuss the terror group’s operations in Afghanistan.

Curiously, when asked by The Long War Journal about three separate operations in Nuristan province in the beginning of May, ISAF began to reveal the existence of “Arab”-linked insurgents. In one of those operations, Saleh Abd al Aziz Hamad al Luhayb, a Saudi operative, was killed in a raid in Waygal district. Luhayb was listed by Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry as one of the 47 most wanted terrorists in 2011, a strong indication that he was a member of al Qaeda. ISAF refused to associate Luhayb and the other “Arab”-linked fighters to al Qaeda, however.

US military and intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that the “Arab”-linked insurgents are indeed members of al Qaeda.

Both Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province are known hotbeds for al Qaeda activity in Afghanistan. Their borders with the tribal regions of Pakistan makes them strategically situated for funneling weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Additionally, Coalition forces have largely withdrawn from Nuristan following deadly attacks on US Army positions in the province.

Kunar is a known al Qaeda haven

For years, the rugged, remote Afghan province of Kunar has served as a sanctuary for al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba cells has been detected in the districts of Asmar, Asadabad, Dangam, Ghazibad, Marawana, Nari, Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Shigal, and Watahpur; or 11 of Kunar’s 15 districts, according to press releases issued by ISAF that have been compiled by The Long War Journal.

Kunar province has remained a hotbed for al Qaeda throughout the surge of Coalition forces in Afghanistan, which ended last fall. Prior to the surge in 2009, there were six reported raids in Kunar targeting insurgents who were members of al Qaeda or were affiliated with the group. The number of raids increased slightly in 2010 to seven, then decreased in 2011 to three at the height of the surge. However, the spike in 2012 to 16 presents a discouraging indication that many of the al Qaeda-linked fighters who may have sought safe haven in Pakistan are now crossing back into Afghanistan as Coalition surge forces began to draw down.

Many of these raids have taken place in the Watahpur district. In 2012, eight of the 16 raids against al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s networks occurred in the Watahpur district alone, according to a study by The Long War Journal. Ten senior al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders or operatives were killed in the operations, including al Qaeda’s second-in-command for Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s leader for Kunar, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s emir for Kunar.

Al Qaeda is known to run training camps and maintain bases in Kunar, and uses the province to direct operations in the Afghan east. ISAF has targeted several bases and camps in Kunar over the years [see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander, for more details].

Al Qaeda remains entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan despite the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. A document seized at bin Laden’s compound suggested that the actual number of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much higher than the numbers mentioned in official estimates provided by the Obama administration over the past three years, which have remained static at 300-400 members in Pakistan and 50-100 in Afghanistan. Additionally, bin Laden advised that some al Qaeda operatives and leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas move to Kunar, Nuristan, Zabul, and Ghazni provinces to avoid drone strikes that focused on North and South Waziristan. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan, and Bin Laden docs hint at large al Qaeda presence in Pakistan.]

A classified US military assessment based on prisoner interrogations that was leaked to The New York Times in February 2012 said that al Qaeda maintains “a small haven” in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan.

“Northeastern Afghanistan has become a small haven for al Qaeda. Several al Qaeda commanders, including the al Qaeda emir for Kunar and Nuristan, Farouq al Qahtani, now live and operate in Afghanistan, with permission from the Taliban, but with the direct support of TTP [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] elements,” the assessment stated.

US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Qahtani is a Saudi citizen. Several other Saudi al Qaeda members have also held top leadership positions in Kunar [see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader, facilitator killed in airstrike in Kunar].

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, 2012. 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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Paul says:

    Saudis seem to fight us in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen etc but we still treat this country with kid gloves

  • mike merlo says:

    “ISAF would not provide further detail, including the nationality, on the al Qaeda leader.” Why just the leader? Even the Rank & File are ‘heavily’ augmented by foreigners particularly by Pakistani’s. In many ways this conflict has come to resemble The Spanish Civil War.
    Then again whats one to expect when ones Commander In Chief ‘bloviate’s’ on about about a cessation or recalibration in hostilities when in fact the conflict was initiated by ones adversary & has continued ‘physically’ expand. Just a few weeks ago ‘our’ adversary openly solicited for solutions or defensive measures when confronted by ‘Drones.’

  • Moose says:

    Al-Qaeda can’t operate in east Afghanistan without support from the Haqqanis. And the Haqqanis take orders from the ISI. All roads lead back to Pakistan. The surge clearly forced the ISI to reallocate resources from the south to the east.
    I was surprised to read that LeT has its own emirs in Afghanistan. Is this only true for the east?


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