The US military announced today that two American service members were killed a third wounded during a raid against the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province. The operation was conducted last night in coordination with Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
“The fight against ISIS-K is important for the world, but sadly, it is not without sacrifice,” General John W. Nicholson, the Commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, said in a statement. “On behalf of all US Forces and our coalition partners, I offer our deepest sympathies to the families, friends, and fellow service members of our fallen comrades.”
ISIS-K is an abbreviation used by US officials to described the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan, or Khorasan province, which operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nangarhar is the group’s main operational hub in the region.
Another American soldier was killed while fighting the so-called caliphate’s men in Nangarhar earlier this month. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, American soldier killed fighting Islamic State in Afghanistan.]
Days later, the US dropped the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB (better known as the “Mother of all Bombs”), on an Islamic State tunnel complex in the Achin district of Nangarhar. NATO’s Resolute Support released a video documenting the destruction left behind by the bomb.
The raid that led to the deaths of two American soldiers last night also apparently took place in Achin.
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency has released its own version of events, saying that the joint American-Afghan team was forced to abort a landing in Achin under heavy fire from the jihadists. Amaq claims helicopters were forced to abandon the mission, after which US aircraft supposedly “launched an intensive bombardment” that led to the deaths of 100 people, mainly women and children. However, the Amaq statement is propaganda and should be read with a grain of salt.
Operations claimed by Wilayah Khorasan since the beginning of April
The Wilayah Khorasan frequently claims attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of these, such as an assault on a military hospital in Kabul in March, are significant. Others are much smaller. It is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in the group’s statements, especially with respect to the number of casualties reported. It is likely that the jihadists exaggerate the efficacy of their operations by claiming more people were killed or wounded than was really the case. Also, some attacks have been claimed by both the Islamic State’s men and Taliban-affiliated factions.
Still, there is often at least a kernel of truth in the Islamic State’s reporting. Below are some of the attacks claimed by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the beginning of the month.
Apr. 2: The jihadists claimed to have repelled an assault led by the Afghan Army in the Achin district. The ground operation was supposedly supported by “coalition airplanes.” But the group alleges that seven soldiers were killed and two Humvees bombed during the battle.
Apr. 7: The Islamic State claimed that four Afghan soldiers were killed along with the American who is known to have perished during an attack by inghimasi fighters in Nangarhar’s Achin district. Inghimasis are highly-trained jihadists who immerse themselves in the fight and are prepared to commit suicide bombings, if necessary.
Apr. 14: Wilayah Khorasan released a photoset documenting the action on the frontlines in Nangarhar’s Achin district. The pictures showed the jihadists firing mortars and artillery. Other photos released the same day attempted to reassure followers that there was a sense of normalcy in Nangarhar, as the jihadists were pictured herding animals and performing other daily tasks.
Apr. 15 The Islamic State claimed that its men assassinated a Taliban member in Peshawar. Despite the defections of some mid-level commanders, the Taliban remains fiercely opposed to the self-declared caliphate’s expansion in the region.
Apr. 21: Wilayah Khorasan claimed three operations targeting Afghan forces in Nangarhar, including an ambush. The attacks allegedly left 18 members of the Afghan Army dead. Twelve of the soldiers were reportedly killed in Achin district.
Apr. 24: Two Pakistani policemen were allegedly assassinated with gun fire in the city of Rahim Yar Khan, which is in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Independent reporting appears to corroborate that a shooting took place, but the precise details are murky.
Apr. 25: Islamic State fighters allegedly targeted “an American forces position inside Jalalabad airbase with two Katyusha rockets.” The jihadists did not claim any casualties.
Apr. 25: According to a statement issued by the Islamic State, a Shiite “instructor” who worked at a university in Nangarhar was assassinated in the city of Jalalabad, which is the capital of the province, two days earlier.
Apr. 25: The Islamic State claimed that twelve Shiites were killed and eleven others wounded in a bomb blast in northern Pakistan. Independent reporting indicates that the death toll was higher. The explosion was reportedly caused by a landmine that was triggered underneath a passenger van. Another jihadist group also claimed responsibility.
Apr. 26: Wilayah Khorasan claimed that a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) destroyed an Afghan Army Humvee, killing or wounding all those on board. The IED was supposedly detonated in Nangarhar’s Achin district.
Background on Wilayah Khorasan
Abu Muhammad al Adnani, the Islamic State’s first spokesman, announced his organization’s expansion into Afghanistan and Pakistan in Jan. 2015. The Islamic State’s Khorasan branch, known as Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan province), was headed by Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former commander in the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban, or TTP), who announced his allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in late 2014.
Khan was not the only significant Wilayah Khorasan figure killed or captured in 2016. The US military has repeatedly targeted Baghdadi’s loyalists in Afghanistan.
According to General John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support and US Forces Afghanistan, 12 Wilayah Khorasan leaders (including Khan) were killed in 2016. Nicholson added that the so-called caliphate’s Afghan branch incurred “roughly” 500 casualties in total, which is an estimated “25 to 30 percent” of the organization’s overall force.
Therefore, based on the figures provided by the US military in Dec. 2016, Wilayah Khorasan had between 1,600 and 2,000 total fighters before suffering from attrition last year. Another estimate, offered in July 2016, said that the organization had 3,000 fighters as of Jan. 2016 and between 1,000 and 1,500 by mid-year.
Throughout 2016, the US-led counterterrorism campaign also destroyed about “two dozen command and control facilities,” as well as “training facilities,” according to Nicholson. In addition, the Wilayah Khorasan’s “sanctuary” was reduced from “nine districts in Afghanistan…down to three,” all of which are in Nangarhar.
However, the Islamic State still has a lethal network inside the country, as seen by the heavy fighting recently in Nangarhar. And while Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men don’t contest or control nearly the same amount of territory as the al Qaeda-allied Taliban, they can still carry out significant attacks.
In March, for instance, a suicide assault team raided the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul. The hospital is Afghanistan’s largest military medical establishment. Dozens of people were killed or wounded in the terrorist operation, which was quickly claimed by the Islamic State. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Islamic State suicide team assaults military hospital in Kabul.]
FDD’s Long War Journal assessed early on that Wilayah Khorasan incorporated disaffected commanders from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as Uzbek jihadists who defected from groups allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This was subsequently confirmed by US authorities. The State Department designated Wilayah Khorasan in Sept. 2015, noting that it “consists of former Pakistani and Afghan Taliban faction commanders.”
And in December, Gen. Nicholson explained that various jihadist “groups mix and converge.” Nicholson added that Wilayah Khorasan “is formed of members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and even some former members of the Afghan Taliban.”
However, the Pakistani Taliban has been reconstituted, most of the Afghan Taliban remains loyal to its leadership, and pro-Islamic State Uzbek jihadists suffered significant losses in the rivalry that ensued with their counterparts in the Taliban-al Qaeda axis.
US officials say that there are ties between the Wilayah Khorasan and the Islamic State’s headquarters in Iraq and Syria.
“We do see a connection,” Gen. Nicholson said in December. The group’s first leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, “went through the application process” the so-called caliphate has set up for establishing new branches. Nicholson added that the main Islamic State organization has provided “support” to its men in the Khorasan in the form of “advice,” “publicity,” and “some financial support.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.