US, Afghan forces rescue son of former Pakistani prime minister from ‘al Qaeda cell’

US Special Operations Forces and Afghan Commandos rescued Ali Haider Gilani, the son of Pakistan’s former prime minister, in a joint raid earlier today. The operation took place in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province, a known hotbed for the Haqqani Network and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda operated a camp in Paktika as of the summer of 2015, and one of its top leaders was killed in an airstrike there as well.

“Four enemy combatants were killed as a result of the operation,” NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement released to the press. “No other injuries or damage was observed or reported.”

The statement did not offer any details about the group targeted, but said the “counterterror mission was planned and launched after evidence of terrorist activity was confirmed.”

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter later confirmed that the “counterterrorism operation” that freed Gilani was directed at “Al Qaeda operatives.”

The US military typically reserves counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan for al Qaeda and allied groups, and usually does not use special operations forces to target the Taliban.

“It was another operation in our continuous efforts against Al Qaeda,” Tawab Ghorzang, a spokesman for the National Security Council of Afghanistan, told the press, according to The New York Times.

“We did not have specific information that Mr. Gilani was held there, but that there was an al Qaeda cell there,” Ghorzang continued.

Dr. Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, wrote on Facebook that Gilani “was recovered after 3 years of captivity from an al Qaeda affiliated group.”

Ali Haider Gilani was kidnapped in 2013. His father, Yusuf Raza Gilani, was Pakistan’s Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012. According to the Associated Press and other outlets, he has said that the hostage-takers wanted “several al Qaeda prisoners” in exchange for his son.

Paktika is a traditional stronghold of the Haqqani Network, the powerful Taliban subgroup that is backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. The Haqqani Network is based in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan.

Siraj Haqqani, the group’s operational leader, serves as one of the Taliban’s two deputy emirs and is also a member of al Qaeda’s executive council. The Taliban and Haqqani Network are known to shelter al Qaeda’s men and they conduct joint operations with the group inside of Afghanistan.

The US military, under the aegis of the International Security Assistance Force, targeted al Qaeda’s network in Paktika seven times between November 2008 and September 2012. The US military identified the presence of a sizable camp in one of those raids. In May 2009, the US military killed 29 Haqqani Network fighters while hunting for Mullah Sangeen Zadran at a “foreign fighter encampment” in the Wor Mamay district. In another raid in the Mata Khan district, the US killed an al Qaeda “weapons expert.” [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]

Al Qaeda is known to have operated a training camp in Paktika as recently as the summer of 2015. In October 2015, the US targeted and destroyed two al Qaeda camps, including one that covered approximately 30 square miles, in Kandahar’s Shorabak district. Afterwards, General John Campbell, the commander of the Resolute Support Mission, disclosed that intelligence for that operation was gleaned from information seized at an al Qaeda camp in Paktika.

Campbell explained to the The Washington Post that the Shorabak camps “were discovered after a raid this summer [of 2015] on another al Qaeda facility in the Barmal district of eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province.”

One of al Qaeda’s top leaders was based in Paktika, indicating that the group felt the area was safe enough to operate there. Abu Khalil al Sudani, one of al Qaeda’s most senior figures, was killed in an airstrike in the Bermal district in July 2015.

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

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  • Arjuna says:

    Was young Gilani the HVT they were after? Hope we’re not carrying Pakistani water. We should make them cough up Dr. Afridi in exchange for this hero.

  • Evan says:

    Ive been wondering what will become of the ANA “commandoes,” trained, outfitted, supported, and funded by the U.S.?

    The IA SWAT teams over fighting IS, are purportedly some of the very best on the battlefield. I’m curios as to how they, being the Iraqi Army’s “SWAT teams,” and the Afghan Army Commandoes, would stack up or compare against each other with regard to overall capability, effectiveness in battle, support,
    command and control, etc…

    Interesting that the DA raid to eliminate an AQ cell in Paktika, had no knowledge or Intel on the rescued Pakistani. They only knew that “terrorist activity,” had been confirmed….?
    A known AO for the Haqqani’s, who recieve support as a proxy of the ISI, the military intelligence wing of the Pakistani Army.
    The Haqqani’s in turn provide support, safe haven, shelter and space in which to operate, to Al Qaeda….AQ, whom the cell of 4 militants supposedly belonged to.


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