US military confirms air strike killed Islamic State’s emir for Khorasan province

The US military announced yesterday that it killed Hafiz Saeed Khan, the Islamic State’s emir for Khorasan province, in an airstrike in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar three weeks ago. The announcement confirms a report earlier this week by the commander for Afghan Army forces in Nangarhar, who stated that Khan was killed during an operation in Nangarhar’s Achin district.

The US military press release noted that Khan was killed in an airstrike in Nangarhar on July 26. The strike was part of a joint operation by “US and Afghan Special Operations Forces” which specifically targeted the Islamic State Khorasan province during the month of July.

Khan led the Islamic State’s Khorasan province, which is comprised of fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the group was officially formed in January 2015. Before defecting to the Islamic State in 2014, Khan served as a mid-level commander in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan for the Arakzai tribal agency. He and a number of disaffected Pakistani and Afghan Taliban commanders formed Khorasan province and swore allegiance to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. [See LWJ report, Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition.]

“Khan was known to directly participate in attacks against US and coalition forces, and the actions of his network terrorized Afghans, especially in Nangarhar,” the US military stated in its press release announcing his death.

Khan and his followers were so violent in Nangarhar that he even alienated Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who served as an unofficial spokesman for Khorasan province. Dost, who enthusiastically joined the Islamic State, later abandoned the group after accusing Khorasan province of conducting acts of wanton violence against civilians in his home province of Nangarhar.

The US military described Nangarhar province as “a hotbed for ISIL-Khorasan activity since the summer of 2015.” They claimed that Khan’s death and the operation in Nangarhar will hurt the group’s operations in Afghanistan.

“ISIL-K uses the area to train, equip, disseminate and control fighter pipelines, providing ISIL-K commanders throughout Afghanistan with a continuous supply of enemy fighters from this province,” the military said. “Khan’s death affects ISIL-K recruiting efforts and will disrupt ISIL-K’s operations in Afghanistan and the region.”

Since the US military began targeting the Islamic State’s leadership in Afghanistan in 2014, it has killed its emir, deputy emir (Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim), mufti or senior religious scholar (Jalaluddin), and spokesman (Shahidullah Shahid).

However, it appears unlikely the removal of key leadership has impacted the Islamic State’s operations.

If the Khorasan province becomes isolated and weakened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it will be more likely due to the fact that the group alienates other jihadist organizations. Since it was founded, Khorasan province declared war on the Afghan Taliban, and was defeated in Farah, Helmand, and Nangarhar. Even the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which shares some of the Islamic State’s more radical views on the use of violence against civilians, has denounced the Islamic State’s “false caliphate.” The Turkistan Islamic Party, another al Qaeda and Taliban ally, have also criticized the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate.

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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