The US killed Abu Khalil al Sudani, a senior al Qaeda leader who took direction from Ayman al Zawahiri, in an airstrike on July 11 in eastern Afghanistan. The strike took place in the Bermal district of the Paktika province, where the US operated a base before withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Afghanistan over the past three years.
Sudani’s death and the deaths of two unnamed “violent extremists” were disclosed to reporters by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter as he traveled in Iraq.
Sudani was described by Carter as a member of al Qaeda’s shura majlis, or executive decision-making council, as well as the chief of al Qaeda’s suicide bombing and explosives operations, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
“Sudani also directed operations against coalition, Afghan and Pakistani forces, and maintained a close association with Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda,” according to the AP. Sudani had a hand in al Qaeda’s external operations network, which plots attacks against the US and the West, a military official said.
Sudani was a veteran al Qaeda leader who waged jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union alongside Osama bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden’s files repeatedly mention Sudani
Sudani’s al Qaeda role is discussed in several of the declassified files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The letters, which were released as part of a Brooklyn terror trial earlier this year, show that Sudani was one of bin Laden’s most trusted men.
An August 7, 2010 letter from bin Laden to Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager at the time, discusses Sudani’s place in al Qaeda’s pecking order. Bin Laden wanted Sudani to serve as Rahman’s deputy, but left the door open for another arrangement if Sudani couldn’t accept the job. Al Qaeda’s general manager position is one of the organization’s most senior roles, and the jihadist who serves in that capacity has responsibilities around the globe.
“Regarding the appointment of a deputy for you, please let me know about Sheikh Abu Khalil [al Sudani’s] qualifications for this mission during this period,” bin Laden wrote to Rahman. “If there is nothing preventing him from becoming a deputy, let him do it and tell him that he has been appointed as your deputy for a period of one year renewable starting on the date of receiving the letter.”
Bin Laden went on to say that another jihadist, Abu Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi, would be a “good fit” for the “second deputy” position. But if Sudani “cannot take this position,” then Maghrebi could become Rahman’s first deputy and still another “brother,” Abd al Jalil, “can be the second deputy.”
The Long War Journal previously identified Abd al Jali as Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, an official in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who doubled as al Qaeda’s deputy general manager until he was killed in a drone strike in April.
“Please send us the resumes of all the brothers who may be nominated now or in the future for important management positions,” Bin Laden wrote at the end of the section of his letter dealing with Rahman’s deputies. “I would appreciate it if you can ask each one of them to write down his outlook on the jihad work in general and their opinions and suggestions on any of the jihad arenas.”
Sudani did not become Rahman’s deputy. Instead, Abu Yahya al Libi took on this responsibility. Al Libi then replaced Rahman, who was killed in a US drone strike in August 2011, as al Qaeda’s general manager. Al Libi was subsequently killed by a drone-fired missile in June 2012. Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of AQAP, was eventually appointed as al Qaeda’s general manager in 2013. But Wuhayshi also succumbed to the US drone campaign in June. The identity of Wuhayshi’s successor in the general manager’s role, if he has been selected, is not publicly known.
Despite the fact he did not become al Qaeda’s deputy general manager, Sudani continued to serve bin Laden and al Qaeda in a variety of other ways.
In a letter to bin Laden dated Nov. 23, 2010, Rahman indicates that “brother Abu Khalil” is “unable to handle something big,” but “assists in some responsibilities.” Rahman says that “Shaykh ‘Umar Khalil,” which is almost certainly a reference to Sudani, had even been given permission to accept oaths of allegiance (bayat) on behalf of bin Laden.
In another letter written in early April 2011, Rahman indicated that Sudani was training bin Laden’s son, Hamzah. Much of Rahman’s letter is dedicated to concerns for Hamzah’s safety. Hamzah had recently been released from detention in Iran, and Rahman defended his caution in moving bin Laden’s son around. But Rahman knew Hamzah was safe with Abu Khalil al Sudani.
Hamzah “has taken his family to our brother Abu Khalil’s house,” Rahman wrote just weeks before bin Laden’s death. “They have been there for a few days because I arranged for Abu Khalil to have Hamzah take Abu Khalil’s explosive training.” Rahman was extra cautious: “I emphasized the need to be safe, to avoid going out, moving around, or doing anything that might expose him to danger. God grants success.”
Al Qaeda remains in eastern Afghanistan
The killing of Sudani is an uncomfortable reminder that al Qaeda continues to maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban is holding ground throughout the country. The presence of a leader of Sudani’s stature in the Bermal district in Paktika indicates that the jihadist group is confident that its senior commanders can operate there with minimal threat from Afghan National Security Forces. Al Qaeda bases its senior leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan where its Taliban and Haqqani Network allies control ground.
Sudani was killed in an area of eastern Afghanistan that has been contested by the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, a powerful Taliban subgroup that is supported by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. The Haqqani Network launched several major assaults against American forces based at Combat Outpost Margah in Bermal, including a failed raid in October 2010. Dozens of Haqqani and al Qaeda fighters were killed by US troops in the thwarted attack.
The US military based troops at Combat Outpost Margah until sometime in 2012 or 2013, when the army began shuttering bases in Paktika province. This was part of the US plan to withdraw the bulk of its forces by the end of 2016 and turn over military operations to the Afghan National Security Forces.
The presence of senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. While the Obama administration, senior US intelligence officials, and US military leaders have downplayed al Qaeda’s presence in the country, maintaining for years that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives are based there, operations against the terrorist group by US commandos tell a different story.
Between 2007 and 2013, the US launched 338 raids against al Qaeda and its allies. Al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union (or Islamic Jihad Group), Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), Hizb-i Islami Khalis, and generic “foreign fighters” (a term often used by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to describe al Qaeda’s jihadists) were targeted in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and in 110 of the nation’s nearly 400 districts. Al Qaeda often replenishes its leaders and operatives killed in battle from these groups. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]
The US military ended its operational reporting on raids against jihadist groups in June 2013, after transitioning security responsibilities to the Afghan military. But in the six months prior to the end of its reporting, the US military launched 42 raids against al Qaeda and other affiliated organizations, indicating that the groups are entrenched in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda’s senior management, including Osama bin Laden and Atiyah Abd al Rahman, ordered members and other leaders in their organization to relocate from Pakistan to Afghanistan beginning in 2010. In a letter dated October 21, 2010, bin Laden told Rahman that al Qaeda should relocate as many “brothers” as possible to the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Ghazni and Zabul to avoid the US drone campaign in North and South Waziristan.
In another letter, authored on June 19, 2010, Rahman noted that al Qaeda had “groups” and “battalions” in eight Afghan provinces, including Paktika. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan, and Osama Bin Laden’s Files: ‘Very strong military activity in Afghanistan’.]