The US military announced that an Oct. 23 airstrike in the province of Kunar that killed Faruq al Qahtani, al Qaeda’s leader for eastern Afghanistan, also killed both his deputy and an explosives expert. The three al Qaeda leaders were plotting attacks against the West as well as inside of Afghanistan.
The deaths of Bilal al Utabyi, al Qaeda’s deputy leader for eastern Afghanistan, and Wahid al-Junabi, “a senior al Qaeda explosives expert,” were announced yesterday by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.
Qahtani, Utabyi, and Junabi “were actively involved in carrying out and plotting terror attacks inside and outside Afghanistan,” according to Cook.
“The deaths of these three al Qaeda leaders will significantly reduce the group’s ability to threaten the United States, our interests and our allies,” Cook said. “This strike is further evidence that those who seek us harm are not beyond our reach.”
At the end of October, the US military announced that it targeted Qahtani and Utabyi in an airstrike in Kunar province on Oct. 23. Junabi, the explosives expert, was not mentioned in the initial announcement of the airstrike that targeted his leaders. The Pentagon did not confirm Qahtani’s death until Nov. 4, however, the status of Utabyi was uncertain until yesterday.
Al Qaeda confirmed Qahtani’s death in a martyrdom statement that was released by As Sahab, its official propaganda arm, on Nov. 23. In the statement, al Qaeda described Qahtani as “a leader of a military brigade spread out in the Nuristan and Kunar provinces, and who had set an example with his mujahidin brothers for fighting and patience and steadfastness.”
Additionally, al Qaeda noted that Qahtani and his brigade fought alongside the Taliban “for years.”
Kunar is a known haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban, and one of four provinces named by Osama bin Laden as a suitable place to relocate leaders and operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas who were targeted in US drone strikes. The US has killed several senior and mid-level al Qaeda leaders in airstrikes and raids in the eastern province over the past decade, however this has not deterred al Qaeda from operating there.
The announcement of the deaths of Utabyi and Junabi takes place less than three weeks after the US military made the stunning announcement that more than 50 al Qaeda leaders and 200 operatives were killed in Afghanistan in 2016. Up until April 2016, the US military and intelligence services claimed that only 50 to 100 al Qaeda leaders and operatives were based in Afghanistan. This number was then revised upwards of 300 after a raid on two al Qaeda camps in Kandahar killed more than 150 al Qaeda fighters. FDD’s Long War Journal has argued for more than six years that the military and intelligence community’s assessment of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan is grossly underestimated. [See US military: 250 al Qaeda operatives killed or captured in Afghanistan this year.]