A Taliban fighter promoted what he described as a training camp for jihadists in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia. The camp is located in a district that is a stronghold of the Haqqani Network and which has hosted members of al Qaeda’s network in the past.
Several photographs of the “Training Camp Shaheed Ustaz Aasim in the Lions Den” were posted to the Twitter account of an established Taliban fighter. The photographs, published above and below, show a dozen fighters training with assault rifles and PK machine guns in an open field. Jihadists hold two large white Taliban flags as the fighters train.
The authenticity of the photographs cannot be confirmed. The images were not released by Al Emarah, the Taliban’s official media wing, nor on Voice of Jihad. However, two US military intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said that it is highly likely that the Taliban is training there.
“The district is firmly in control of the Taliban and they can operate in the open there,” one intelligence official said of Zurmat.
The Zurmat district is a bastion of the Haqqani Network, the Taliban subgroup that operates in eastern, northern, southern, and central Afghanistan. Siraj Haqqani, the operational commander of the network, is one of two deputies to the new Taliban emir Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the network and Siraj’s father, is an influential jihadist leader and a member of the Quetta Shura.
The Haqqani Network was targeted by the US military in numerous raids in Zurmat until June 2013, when the US military ended its operational reporting on raids against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied jihadist groups. The last raid in Zurmat, on June 19, 2013, targeted “a senior Haqqani leader” who is “responsible for organizing and executing attacks against Afghan and coalition forces in Paktia province” and “manages supply routes that provide weapons and military equipment to Haqqani cells in the local area,” the US military noted.
The US also launched four raids against al Qaeda fighters in Zurmat between November 2008 and May 2010. During those operations one “key al Qaeda leader” and four fighters were killed, and an al Qaeda financier was captured. Additionally, a “known Taliban operative believed to act as a liaison to al Qaeda moving foreign fighters into Paktia province” was targeted in one of the four raids.
Jihadist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Unlike the Islamic State, which routinely releases propaganda promoting its training centers, the Afghan Taliban only occasionally publicizes camps. But the Afghan Taliban and allied jihadist groups are thought to run dozens of training centers within Afghanistan, and scores more inside Pakistan.
Last month, Taliban fighters released images of what they claimed is a “special forces” camp in Afghanistan. In December 2014, the Afghan Taliban released a video promoting a camp in the northern province of Faryab. The footage showed scenes that are similar to the recent photos published by jihadists. Taliban fighters were shown undergoing weapons training, including firing rifles from a moving vehicle, a tactic commonly used by the Taliban in assassinations of government officials.
Taliban-allied groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), al Qaeda, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and Lashkar-e-Taiba are also known to run camps inside Afghanistan despite a presence of Coalition forces. In the past, the disbanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) identified the presence of “Suicide camps” in Sar-i-Pul and Samangan province. In March 2011, an ISAF special operations team captured an IMU commander who ran camps in Samangan.
Al Qaeda is known to have hosted training facilities in the northern district of Baghran in Helmand province. Hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters rotated through the Baghran camps, which were run by the Shadow Army, US officials told The Long War Journal in 2009. It is unclear if the Taliban and al Qaeda still train in the district, however Baghran is still said to be controlled by the Taliban. The Shadow Army, or the Lashkar al Zil, is al Qaeda’s paramilitary force that closely operates with the Taliban and other jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. [see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army’.]
As late as August 2014, the US government said that Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, an al Qaeda and Taliban-linked jihadist group that is based in Pakistan, operates training facilities in Afghanistan.
“HUM also operates terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan and has conducted a number of operations against Indian troops and civilian targets in the Kashmir region,” the US State Department said in its update to Harakat-ul-Mujahideen’s Foreign Terrorist Organization designation in August 2014. A follow-up inquiry to State by The Long War Journal confirmed that the HUM camps in eastern Afghanistan are still in operation. The exact number and locations of the camps were not disclosed.
Additionally, al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are known to operate several training camps in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. A dual-hatted Taliban and al Qaeda military commander known as Qari Zia Rahman is known to have run training camps that are used to indoctrinate and train women and children to carry out suicide attacks on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. And ISAF has targeted several bases and camps in Kunar over the years. [See LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander.]
Photos of the Taliban “Training Camp Shaheed Ustaz Aasim in the Lions Den”: