American counterterrorism forces have killed or captured approximately 250 al Qaeda operatives in 2016, according to US military officials.
The jihadists taken off the battlefield include 50 leaders and 200 other members of al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which is the newest regional branch of Ayman al Zawahiri’s global network.
The figures were first announced by General John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support and US Forces Afghanistan, during a briefing on Dec. 2. FDD’s Long War Journal followed up with some additional questions regarding the number of al Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists targeted.
For more than six years, FDD’s Long War Journal has warned that official estimates of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan were too low and inconsistent with publicly available evidence. Officials finally conceded earlier this year that the number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan exceeds the US government’s longstanding claim.
Longstanding lowball estimate at odds with evidence
In June 2010, then CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC’s This Week that the number of al Qaeda members in Afghanistan was “relatively small.” “At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less,” Panetta said. “It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of al Qaeda is in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”
FDD’s Long War Journal described this figure as fallacious at the time. An analysis of the raids conducted between 2007 and 2013 indicated that al Qaeda and its closest allies maintained a far deeper and broader presence. [For more information on the number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan see FDD’s Long War Journal report: US military admits al Qaeda is stronger in Afghanistan than previously estimated.]
In early May 2011, the US killed Osama bin Laden in a daring raid. The Americans recovered a large cache of files in bin Laden’s compound. One of the files was a memo written by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who was subsequently killed in a drone strike, to bin Laden. The memo was dated June 19, 2010 — the same month that the CIA’s Panetta announced there were just 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives, or “maybe less,” in all of Afghanistan.
Rahman’s memo told a different story. He reported to bin Laden that al Qaeda had “very strong military activity in Afghanistan,” and had conducted “many special operations” that were hitting the Americans and NATO “hard.” Rahman explained that al Qaeda was closely cooperating with Siraj Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network. Siraj was named one of the Taliban’s top two deputies in 2015 and he continues to serve in that role today.
Rahman explained that al Qaeda was operating in at least eight of Afghanistan’s provinces as of June 2010. In addition, just one al Qaeda “battalion” based in Kunar and Nuristan had 70 members by itself. That is, this one “battalion” had more fighters than the lower bound of the CIA’s figures for all of Afghanistan.
The lowball guess stuck, however, despite the recovery of this primary source evidence.
The US military claimed as recently as June 2015, in its biannual Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan report, that al Qaeda “has a sustained presence in Afghanistan of probably fewer than 100 operatives concentrated largely in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where they remain year-round.”
Another Defense Department report, published in Dec. 2015, claimed that al Qaeda is “primarily concentrated in the east and northeast.” This erroneous assessment was published despite the fact that US and Afghan forces raided two large al Qaeda camps in the Shorabak district of the southern Kandahar province just two months earlier, in Oct. 2015. More than 150 al Qaeda operatives were found at one of the two camps.
US officials walk back previous assessment
Earlier this year, US generals began to walk back the consistently low estimate of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan.
In April, Major General Jeff Buchanan, Resolute Support’s deputy chief of staff, discussed al Qaeda’s footprint in the country and warned that previous US estimates on al Qaeda’s strength were wrong.
“If you go back to last year, there were a lot of intel estimates that said within Afghanistan al Qaeda probably has 50 to 100 members, but in this one camp we found more than 150,” Buchanan told CNN, referring to one of the camps discovered in Shorabak. US officials revised the estimate to upwards of 300 al Qaeda operatives in the country, “but that number does include other facilitators and sympathizers in their network,” CNN reported.
In addition to revising al Qaeda’s estimated strength upwards, US commanders in Afghanistan began to detail the scope of al Qaeda’s presence. In Sept. 2016, General Nicholson Jr. told the press that the US was hunting al Qaeda members in at least seven provinces.
However, less than seven months after US officials revised al Qaeda’s strength to upwards of 300 operatives, some US officials began to lowball al Qaeda’s numbers in Afghanistan once again.
“American officials estimate that both the core Qaeda group and the new branch [AQIS] number fewer than 200 total operatives in Afghanistan,” The New York Times reported on Dec. 2. The Times added: “Afghan officials put the number at 300 to 500.”
Obviously, there are more than 200 al Qaeda and AQIS members in Afghanistan (as some officials told the Times), because the US killed or captured 250 in the first eleven months of 2016.
After years of undercounting the members of al Qaeda’s network inside Afghanistan, US intelligence is due for a fresh assessment.