The US Department of State added a deputy shadow governor for the southeastern Afghan province of Zabul to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists today. While not stated in the press release that announced the designation, the Taliban leader is associated with al Qaeda.
Qari Saifullah, the designated Taliban leader, has directed suicide, IED, and small arms attacks against Coalition forces and the Afghan government and military. In a press release, State described Saifullah as the “Taliban shadow deputy governor and an operational commander in Zabul Province, Afghanistan.”
“As an operational commander, Qari Saifullah has used Taliban fighters to organize terrorist activities against the Government of Afghanistan and Coalition Forces in eastern Zabul Province,” State continued. He “directly ordered his subordinates to conduct improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, small arms fire attacks, and rocket attacks” in the province.
State identified two attacks or plots that Saifullah directed: an RPG ambush of a Romanian military convoy in the Tarnak Wa Jaldak district in January 2012; and a plot to send two suicide bombers to attack the Provincial Reconstruction Team at Forward Operating Base Smart in Qalat district and Forward Operating Base Bullard in Shajoy district in September 2011.
While the September 2011 plot to attack the PRT in Qalat was broken up, the Taliban later carried out a successful attack against PRT officials in the city. In April 2013, a Taliban suicide bomber killed three US soldiers, a State Department official, and a Defense Department official from the PRT as they were driving in Qalat. Four more State personnel were wounded in the blast. State did not link Saifullah to the attack in the press release that announced his designation.
Additionally, Saifullah ordered a subordinate Taliban commander “to transport light weapons” to Qalat City in support of a suicide assault team that was planning to attack the Afghan military in September 2010.
“The shipment included approximately 25 Kalashnikov rifles, 10 machine guns, five RPGs, and 20 grenades,” according to State. “Suicide bombers planned to use these weapons against Coalition Forces and Afghan National Security Forces, specifically targeting the Second Afghan National Army Brigade and Police Headquarters in Qalat, Zabul Province.”
Although State department officials declined to comment on Saifullah’s connections with al Qaeda, two US military and intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that he is linked to the global jihadist group.
“Qari Saifullah aids al Qaeda’s network in RC-South,” or Regional Command – South, the International Security Assistance Force’s designation for the region of Afghanistan that includes the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, and Daykundi. “Weapons, ammunition, shelter, whatever they need, he will provide it.”
Zabul a known transit point and staging ground for al Qaeda
Six months prior to his death, Osama bin Laden, the founder and former emir of al Qaeda, issued instructions to his chief of staff, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, to relocate “hundreds” of commanders and fighters from North Waziristan to Kunar, Nuristan, Ghazni, and Zabul provinces in Afghanistan to avoid targeting by US drone strikes. Bin Laden’s letter to Atiyah was dated Oct. 21, 2010. [See LWJ report, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan.]
It is unclear if bin Laden’s instructions were followed, but several al Qaeda leaders and operatives were killed, captured, and targeted in those four provinces after the letter was written.
Al Qaeda often embeds military trainers within Taliban groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. These trainers, who are part of the Lashkar-al-Zil, or Shadow Army, provide instructions for battling security forces in local insurgencies and furnish knowledge, expertise, funding, and resources for conducting local and international attacks. The US Treasury Department officially acknowledged the existence of this unit when it added one such Pakistan-based trainer and commander of al Qaeda’s “paramilitary brigades” to the list of global terrorists in June. [For more information on this unit, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army,’ from February 2009.]
Zabul province is a known haven for al Qaeda in the Afghan southeast. Al Qaeda’s presence in Zabul has been detected in the districts of Shah Joy, Shamulzai, Tarnak wa Jaldak, and Qalat; or four of Zabul’s 11 districts, according to an investigation by The Long War Journal. The province is an ideal staging and transit point for al Qaeda and allied groups operating from Pakistan. Zabul shares a border with Pakistan, and also borders the Afghan provinces of Uruzgan, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Paktika.
Coalition and Afghan forces have targeted several al Qaeda cells in Zabul since October 2008. In July 2010, security forces killed Malauwi Shahbuddin, a Taliban commander and “foreign-fighter facilitator,” during a raid in Shah Joy. In October 2010, Mullah Abdullah Kakar, another Taliban commander and “foreign-fighter facilitator,” was killed in an airstrike, also in Shah Joy.
In a series of raids starting in May 2011, ISAF and Afghan special operations forces targeted the “foreign fighter” support networks run by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Zabul. On May 8, 2011, Coalition and Afghan forces captured an unnamed “Germany-based Moroccan al Qaeda foreign fighter facilitator” during a raid in the district of Qalat. Several foreign fighters were among the 10 people killed during the raid. Security forces “found passports and identification cards from France, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia amongst ten insurgents killed during the operation.”
On May 19, 2011, ISAF attempted to capture a Taliban commander who operates in Zabul and “directs a core group of insurgent fighters augmented by al Qaeda associated foreign fighters assembled in Quetta, Pakistan.” On May 29, 2011, ISAF conducted a follow-up raid against the Taliban commander in the Shah Joy district in Zabul.
On June 14, 2011, a Taliban facilitator who assisted in the transfer of Uzbeks and Farsi-speaking foreign fighters from Pakistan into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban was captured in Tarnak wa Jaldak district, Zabul province.
ISAF is no longer reporting information on the targeting of al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan. At the end of June 2013, after completing its transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces, ISAF stopped issuing press releases on its raids against al Qaeda, shutting off a window into how it targets al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan.