US targeted 2 senior al Qaeda leaders in eastern Afghanistan

The US Department of Defense has announced that two senior al Qaeda leaders were targeted in airstrikes in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on Oct. 23.

The two jihadists are Faruq al Qatani, who has long served as one of al Qaeda’s top commanders in Afghanistan, and Bilal al Utabi. Both have been involved in al Qaeda’s efforts to strike the US and the West, according to the Pentagon.

“We are still assessing the results of the strikes, but their demise would represent a significant blow to the terrorist group’s presence in Afghanistan, which remains committed to facilitating attacks against the United States, our allies, and partners,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

Qatani has been al Qaeda’s “emir for northeastern Afghanistan” and was “assigned by the group’s leadership to re-establish al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan,” according to Cook. He was also “a senior planner for attacks against the United States, and has a long history of directing deadly attacks against US forces and our coalition allies.”

The Pentagon’s description of Qatani mirrors the short biography provided by the Treasury Department in February, when Qatani was added to the US government’s list of designated terrorists. In addition to his responsibilities inside Afghanistan, Treasury said Qatani has contributed to “al Qaeda’s external operations planning,” meaning plots against the West. [See LWJ report, Treasury designates head of al Qaeda’s eastern zone in Afghanistan.]

The Pentagon connected Bilal al Utabi to al Qaeda’s anti-Western plans as well.

Utabi “is assessed to have been involved in efforts to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to threaten the West, and in efforts to recruit and train foreign fighters,” according to Cook’s statement.

Cook added that Qatani and Utabi were targeted “[a]fter an extensive period of surveillance … at what was assessed as command-and-control locations in remote areas of Kunar province.”

“If these strikes are determined to be successful,” Cook’s press release continued, then “eliminating these core leaders of al Qaeda will disrupt efforts to plot against the United States and our allies and partners around the world, reduce the threat to our Afghan partners, and assist their efforts to deny al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan.”

Qatani identified as a key figure in Osama bin Laden’s files

As The Long War Journal previously reported, Qatani’s importance to al Qaeda can be seen in declassified files recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. In a memo to bin Laden dated June 19, 2010, for example, Atiyah Abd al Rahman heaped praise on Qatani. [See LWJ report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: ‘Very strong military activity in Afghanistan’.]

“As I have reported before, we have a good battalion over there [Afghanistan] led by brother Faruq al Qatari [Qatani],” Rahman, who was one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants at the time, wrote. “He is the best of a good crew,” Rahman continued. “He recently sent us a message telling us that he has arranged everything to receive us; he said the locations are good, there are supporters and everything.”

Rahman’s memo shows, therefore, that Qatani was deeply involved in the relocation of al Qaeda cadres from northern Pakistan into Afghanistan several years ago. The effort to “re-establish al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan” mentioned by the Pentagon in Cook’s statement actually began in 2010, if not sooner.

Another missive found in Osama bin Laden’s lair also included a discussion of the move back into Afghanistan. In a letter dated Oct. 21, 2010, bin Laden told Rahman – who ironically was subsequently killed in a US drone strike – 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. And al Qaeda did just that. Bin Laden knew that Qatani had cleared the way for his al Qaeda comrades to live and fight in Afghanistan. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan and Osama Bin Laden’s Files: Al Qaeda relocated operatives out of northern Pakistan.]

In the years since bin Laden’s death, Qatani continued to support the Taliban-led insurgency, while also plotting terror around the world.

For more on US and Afghan operations against al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the last two years, see LWJ reports:

Senior al Qaeda leader reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan

US airstrike kills one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted commanders in Afghanistan

Al Qaeda leader killed in eastern Afghanistan, NDS claims

US military strikes large al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan

Al Qaeda commander reported killed in northeastern Afghanistan

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

US military is hunting al Qaeda in at least 7 Afghanistan provinces

Afghan intelligence service destroys al Qaeda base in Zabul

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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