Omar Khetab was a deputy leader in AQIS and supported the Taliban’s insurgency.*
The US and allied Afghan forces targeted al Qaeda operatives in at least three Afghan provinces in recent weeks. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) first announced the operations earlier today. NATO’s Resolute Support then reported on the raids in a separate statement.
Resolute Support confirmed that one of the al Qaeda operatives targeted was Omar Khetab (a.k.a. Omar Mansour), “a senior al Qaeda leader” who served as the “second senior leader” in Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). This means that Khetab was a deputy to AQIS emir Asim Umar, the leader of AQIS since its inception in 2014.*
Khetab “was directly involved in fighting against the Afghan government and foreign troops and had a role in advising in the use of heavy weapons such as rockets, mortars and training for Taliban night attacks,” Resolute Support said. The NDS offered the same description of Khetab’s role and released a photo of him (seen above).
Khetab and “multiple other al Qaeda operatives” were killed during “operations in Ghazni, Paktia and Zabul provinces,” according to Resolute Support.
NATO did not offer casualty figures for al Qaeda. But the NDS reported that more than 100 members of AQIS had been killed or captured during the operations.
In addition to Khetab, the NDS claimed that 80 other AQIS members were killed, while 27 more were captured. The NDS named some of the other AQIS operatives killed, identifying them as “Qasim, Hassan Hamza, Jonaid and Mustafa,” according to TOLOnews. Mustafa served as the “military head” of the group. Three men from the Punjabi Taliban and two other “local” Taliban fighters were killed as well. It is not clear how the NDS knows which groups the deceased men belonged to, as there is significant overlap in the jihadists’ operations.
AQIS has repeatedly said that resurrecting the Taliban’s state is one of its primary missions. In its code of conduct, released in June, AQIS said it “considers strengthening the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and defending it to be one of its basic objectives.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, AQIS emphasizes allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, Taliban in new ‘code of conduct’.]
Khetab was living up to that mission at the time of his death, according to both the NDS and Resolute Support.
Al Qaeda continues to train Taliban fighters
AQIS is an official branch of al Qaeda. Ayman al Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS in Sept. 2014, and it remains openly loyal to Zawahiri, as well as the Taliban’s emir, to this day. Along with other senior jihadists, Zawahiri built AQIS to serve the group’s interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere in South Asia. Al Qaeda pooled the resources of various al Qaeda-affiliated and allied groups in the region under a common banner to form AQIS. Veteran jihadists were embedded in its ranks to lead its operations.
Therefore, although some refer to AQIS as if it is a distinct entity from “core” al Qaeda, this is not the case. That was always a false distinction. AQIS is al Qaeda’s creation.
And AQIS continues to fight alongside the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
During a press briefing on Nov. 28, General John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support and US Forces-Afghanistan, said the military sees “a degree of collaboration going on between al Qaeda and the Taliban,” despite the fact that the 9/11 hijackings led to the demise of the Taliban’s regime — a fact still lamented by some Taliban commanders. This cooperation is “primarily in the form of” AQIS providing the Taliban with “some of the expertise, the training on specialized weapons or IEDs or bomb-making.” (Khetab was serving in a similar role.)
Nicholson added: “Its al Qaeda Indian Subcontinent fighters who are the ones who are training a lot of the local Taliban, and in return for this the Taliban afford them sanctuary.”
Nicholson correctly pointed to the fact that Mullah Mansour, the successor to Mullah Omar as Taliban leader, publicly accepted Ayman al Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance (bayat). Mansour was killed in a US drone strike in May 2016, after returning to Pakistan from Iran. Zawahiri quickly swore allegiance to Mansour’s replacement, Hibatullah Akhundzada. As Nicholson noted, Akhundzada did not openly accept Zawahiri’s allegiance in the same manner as Mansour. But that doesn’t mean Akhundzada rejected Zawahiri’s fealty; he didn’t publicly comment on it one way or the other.
And the Taliban even celebrated its historical relationship with al Qaeda months later, in a video released in Dec. 2016. However, the Taliban is rarely as forthcoming about its ongoing alliance with al Qaeda, but the group still works with Zawahiri’s men.
Indeed, according to Nicholson, Akhundzada told his commanders: “Continue to work with them” (meaning al Qaeda).
“So even though the Taliban will not publicly acknowledge the relationship, what we see at the tactical level is still a close relationship,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson didn’t “want to get into operational details” at the time, but he explained that the US and its allies had been hunting al Qaeda in Afghanistan “recently.” He also said the US-led coalition has “continued to find and kill senior-level leaders in the al Qaeda organization inside Afghanistan.” They are “typically…existing within a friendly environment created by the Taliban.”
The American military commander added that “most” of al Qaeda is “trying to hide,” but not AQIS. It is AQIS “that is more active with the Taliban and then therefore more targetable on the battlefield,” Nicholson said.
This is one of the principal reasons that al Qaeda built AQIS in the first place. Just as American generals rarely lead the charge directly on the battlefield, members of al Qaeda’s management team often attempt to keep their distance from the frontlines. The jihadists of AQIS do their bidding for them.
*This sentence was changed after publication to read “a deputy,” as opposed to “the deputy.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.