The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence service, confirmed that its forces killed Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a top Pakistani al Qaeda leader, during a raid last month in the southern province of Ghazni. Akhtar’s involvement with jihad spanned four decades, and he has been directly linked to Osama bin Laden and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D).
The NDS said it killed Akhtar and one of his “comrades” during a raid in the district of Nawa in Ghazni on Jan. 9. It is unclear why the NDS took more than five weeks to confirm Akhtar’s death.
Akhtar, operating under the orders of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, managed “a terrorist hub in the Bagram and Reshkhor regions of Kabul province,” according to the NDS.
The Pakistani press reported just one day after the raid, based on statements from jihadists in the region, that Akhtar was killed on Jan. 9. However, these same accounts indicated that he was killed in Paktika’s Bermal district.
Akhtar’s death has not been announced by al Qaeda or Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, the Pakistani jihadist group which he commanded.
Akhtar waged jihad since the 1980s, when he fought the Russians in Afghanistan with the help of Inter-Serves Intelligence Directorate. He took control of the radical Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI, or the Movement of Islamic Holy War) after its leader was killed and quickly became an important jihadist figure. He also was a valuable asset to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D), so much so that he was released from custody four separate times, most recently in 2010, despite being directly linked to multiple terror attacks and plots inside Pakistan.
HUJI and Akhtar were also knee deep in the complex web of terrorist alliances in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By the late 2000s, he was working closely with al Qaeda. According to The New York Times, he met with Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s tribal areas to ask for support in attacking the Pakistani Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Bin Laden reportedly declined to support the attack and instead urged him to focus his men’s efforts against US forces in Afghanistan.
Akhtar was not the only HUJI leader to serve as a senior al Qaeda leader. Ilyas Kashmiri, who was HUJI’s operations chief, became al Qaeda’s military commander before he was killed by the US in a drone strike in south Waziristan in 2011. Kashmiri was also in direct communication with Osama bin Laden, according to files captured during the raid on the al Qaeda founder’s compound.
US continues to target al Qaeda in Afghanistan
Nawa district, where Akhtar was killed, is a known haven for the Taliban, which provides shelter for al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In June 2016, the Afghan government admitted that Nawa is under Taliban control. An assessment by FDD’s Long War Journal indicates the district remains under Taliban control to this day.
Akhtar’s presence in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. Al Qaeda has maintained a significant presence in Afghanistan, despite claims by the Obama administration that the group was decimated in the country. Al Qaeda began moving some of its leaders, operatives, and their families to Afghanistan after the US government began targeting them in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2008. However, the drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan in 2011 allowed the Taliban to retake territory and establish safe havens.
The US military continues to target senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to this day. In Oct. 2016, the US killed Faruq al Qahtani, al Qaeda’s leader for eastern Afghanistan, and his deputy, Bilal al Utabyi, as well as a senior explosives expert known as Wahid al Junabi.
Background on Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the HUJI
Qari Saifullah Akhtar and HUJI have worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda for decades. In 2002, The Friday Times described the HUJI as “the biggest militia we know nothing about.”
HUJI was formed by Islamist extremists inside Pakistan’s Punjab province in the early 1980s to help battle the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, HUJI turned its focus to fighting the Indian Army inside Jammu and Kashmir. The group maintained camps throughout Pakistan. The largest camp, in Kotli, which is in Azad Kashmir, reportedly had a capacity for training 800 warriors. As of 2002, more than 650 HUJI fighters had been killed fighting the Indian Army.
Like many Pakistani-based jihadi groups fighting in Kashmir, the HUJI received support from Pakistan’s military and the ISI-D. The group has offices in more than 40 locations inside Pakistan and maintained organized seminaries in Karachi, Chechnya, Xinxiang (China), Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Its members have participated in attacks and fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The leader of the Bangladeshi branch of HUJI was one of the original signatories of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the West. This fatwa, or religious ruling, established the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders and incorporated various Islamic terror groups, such as Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Akhtar took control of the HUJI after the group’s previous leader was killed fighting the Soviets in 1985. Akhtar expanded HUJI’s infrastructure throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. He largely stayed off the radar until emerging as part of a plot to overthrow the Pakistani government in 1995. He was implicated along with Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi and three other senior officers in an attempt to assassinate military leaders during a Corps Commanders Conference at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Charges against Akhtar were dismissed after he testified against his conspirators.
The Pakistani government released Akhtar in 1996 and he promptly fled to Afghanistan, where he became a close confidant and adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Three members in the Taliban’s cabinet and 22 judges were members of HUJI. Akhtar has been described as a “crucial figure” in the efforts to unite Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.
HUJI established training camps in Kandahar, Kabul, and Khost. Taliban military and police forces were also trained at HUJI camps. HUJI became a critical force in the Taliban’s efforts to consolidate power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when more than 300 HUJI fighters were killed fighting against the Northern Alliance. HUJI also leveraged its bases in Afghanistan to conduct operations in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Akhtar accompanied Mullah Omar when he fled the US onslaught during Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001. Omar moved his operations to Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Akhtar took shelter in South Waziristan, where he was born, and established links with Baitullah Mehsud, the former commander of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. Mehsud was killed in a US Predator strike in Aug. 2009.
After being implicated in two attempts to assassinate Pervez Musharraf in Dec. 2003, Akhtar fled to Saudi Arabia, ultimately taking refuge in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE arrested Akhtar in Aug. 2004 and deported him to Pakistan, where he was held for more than two years without trial. The Pakistani security services released Akhtar in May 2007 after the Supreme Court began inquiring about a number of missing persons.
Pakistani security forces detained Akhtar once again in Feb. 2008 after he was implicated in several bombings. These operations included the Oct. 2007 suicide attack in Karachi that aimed to assassinate former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned from exile to begin her political campaign.
Bhutto, who was later assassinated in an attack in Rawalpindi in Dec. 2007, implicated Akhtar in her posthumously released book. “I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs,” Bhutto wrote. “Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted jihadi terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government in the 1990s. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail. According to my sources, the officials in Lahore had turned to Qari for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one.”
The Pakistani government released Akhtar from jail on bail in June 2008 after claiming that the evidence was insufficient to link him to recent attacks. After his release, he is thought to have fled to North Waziristan.
Akhtar is one of the main plotters of the Sept. 2008 suicide attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Akhtar acted in concert with Qari Zafar, the leader of the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Fedayeen-i-Islam. The US killed Zafar in an airstrike in Feb. 2010 in the town of Dargi Mandi near Miramshah in North Waziristan, a known haven for al Qaeda.
The Pakistani government placed Akhtar in protective custody in Aug. 2010, just three months after he was implicated in recruiting five American Muslims to join al Qaeda. Before the year ended, he was released from custody and rejoined the jihad once again.